Archive for the ‘Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students’ Category

Sunday
September 12

Finding Divine Sustenance

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Kings 19:48

John 6:35, 4151

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Good morning! Can I just say how amazing it is to be here, in front of people, delivering a sermon today? This year has been so difficult, and even though we managed ways to stay connected through the radio and zoom, distanced outdoor in-person services in the freezing cold, and email, nothing compares to the strength and support of physically being together. In the three weeks that we have been back indoors, in person here at Marsh Chapel I have been so happy to see your faces, although masked, and to hear your wonderful voices. Don’t get me wrong, recording your sermon ahead of time has its advantages, like starting over if you mess up at the beginning, but nothing compares to being here, with you, in community praising God. It’s such a blessing on what is a very important day for me – more on that later! 

A few years ago, actually, I think it may have been a decade or more at this point, the candy bar, Snickers, had a commercial campaign that featured Betty White. You may remember this. She was depicted playing a game of touch football with much younger men and ends up getting tackled into a giant mud puddle. When she gets grief from the other players for not playing to her potential, she lashes out at them. And then another woman presumably the partner of the person Betty White is supposed to be depicting, hands her a candy bar and says, “Eat a Snickers.” Betty White then transforms into a younger man who says he’s now feeling much better and goes off to play more football. The tagline was “You’re not you when you’re hungry.Maybe some of us have experienced being so hungry that we end up in a bad mood, sometimes lashing out at others. Your hunger becomes so great that even the smallest inconvenience becomes insurmountable. I’m sure some of us are familiar with the term “hangry” – a portmanteau of the words hungry and angry. As a person who struggles with low blood sugar at times, I certainly know that I have embodied this “hangry” position and I am certainly not myself when I do. 

Earlier this year, there was a meme going around in my clergy friend circle discussing the passage from 1 Kings today. The meme is actually a tweet from Joy Clarkson, a PhD candidate in theology at St. Andrews University and host of the Podcast, “Speaking with Joy”( @joynessthebrave). It stated: 

“Remember that one time in the Bible when Elijah was like “God, I’m so mad! I want to die!” So God said, “Here’s some food. Why don’t you have a nap? So Elijah slept and ate, and decided things weren’t so bad. Never underestimate the power of a snack and a nap.”

Of course, this is an oversimplification of the story, but we get the point, right? Elijah’s story is relatable because we know that feeling. Getting “hangry” or overwhelmed, or even just not acting like ourselves when things are not going the way we planned. We get moody. We argue with others. We hyperbolize and say, “I could just die!” The bottom line is, we just want whatever it is to be over. We’ve all had times when things seem so impossible around us that we want to just throw up our hands at God and say “WHY? WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?” Some of those times may have even come up in the past year, or even the past weeks with the surge of the Delta variant, returning to school or work, and witnessing national and global news that leaves us at a loss for words. Our conversations with God often come in these moments of exasperation as we grasp for clarity.  My friends who shared the meme about Elijah’s breakdown were those who had endured a year of upended plans with their religious communities and faced continued situations of injustice throughout the world. They too were and continue to be frustrated in what they can and cannot do for others to serve them in a way that is does not completely deplete them of their own energy supply. Many of them were reaching a point of burnout 

A snack and a nap certainly are not going to fix all of the world’s problems, but when we have our basic needs met, it is easier to cope with extenuating circumstances. We cannot serve others or ourselves if we are running low on energy. Taking care of our needs can also help us focus on who and what supports us. For my clergy friends, remembering that it is okay and even encouraged by God to take care of themselves to better serve others was much needed. A silly internet meme resulted in a moment of reflection on God’s presence and guidance in maintaining one’s ability to continue the difficult work of seeking out justice in the world. In times of stress, remembering to drink, eat, and sometimes even just breathe can help us find grounding. 

Elijah separates himself from his community to express his frustration and ultimately finds that God continues to support him by providing him with his essential needs so that he can reset and return to his community. He can then go on to continue his important work as a prophet in challenging the actions of King Ahab and the cruelty shown to the people of Israel. God’s constant presence through the care shown to Elijah when he is at his lowest point enables Elijah to remember that God continues to support him, even in his darkest moments. Elijah has physical hunger, yes, but he also has a spiritual hunger that needs to be fulfilled. 

The theme of the sustaining presence of God in the world is carried through in today’s Gospel message. Jesus proclaims to the people, including the religious authorities, that HE is the bread of life and that whoever comes to him will never be hungry. Some may read this as a message meant to exclude, a condemnation of those who are not a part of Jesus’ movement. But, as one commentator put it, this is not a message of condemnation but of commendation. It is an invitation to people to come, taste and see that the Lord is good! Jesus creates a continuum between his Jewish heritage and the new message of what God offers to humanity. The Israelites relied on manna from heaven while they wandered the desert with Moses for 40 years, further establishing their trust in God. This new form of manna from heaven through the bread of life expands God’s covenant with humanity in establishing eternal life. It provides spiritual nourishment to all who come to receive it.  

In our Christian context, we immediately connect Jesus’ claim of being the bread of life for those who hunger and the living waters for those who thirst with our sacraments. Holy Communion allows us to eat and drink as Christ has instructed us, in his remembrance. Sharing together as a community in partaking in the bread and wine physically binds us to the reality of Christ’s love. As a central part of worship, the Lord’s Supper presents an opportunity for us as the congregation to share in the intimate act of eating and drinking together. Temporally and spatially, this act also connects us with the centuries of Christians throughout the world who have shared in this sacrament. Creating community around the table is meaningful because it recognizes the need to be spiritually and physically sustained in order to serve God. 

One thing that I appreciate most about the Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper is the acknowledgement of the mystery that surrounds it. We take Jesus at his word when he states that the bread and the wine are his body and blood. Our faith is bolstered by the fact that we continue to receive this mystery. Even if we believe we are unworthy to accept God’s grace, it is still given to us through the promise found in Holy Communion. Our consciences are eased by the reality that there is nothing we need to do to earn this means of grace from God, but that it is given to us freely.  

Here at Marsh Chapel, last week we had our first experience with Holy Communion together in the same space after 18 months of depravation. Communion did not happen in our traditional way of intinction. We used pre-packaged communion kits rather than receiving the bread and wine from one another. While we may have fumbled to get the plastic wrappers off of our wafers or carefully pulled back the foil on top of our cup of grape juice so not to spill it on our clothes, we still heard the words of institution spoken and received the mystery of the sacrament together. It was still a special moment filled with God’s stated presence here with us, joining us together. Eating and drinking has been something  many of us have missed in these days of isolation and social distancing. Avoiding having a meal around others has been essential to maintaining our physical health in the past year, but finding a way to still partake in this sacrament in a COVID-safe way has brought back spiritual nourishment for us. 

Holy Communion has played a pivotal role in my own sense of vocation and call. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I only infrequently encountered other ministers in my youth My primary clergy person was also my dad. I witnessed my father celebrating communion almost every week in the churches he served. However, when you’re a PK, your connection with the church can be somewhat challenging. If your pastor is your parent, it’s hard to not see their vocation as just a “job” or really understand what it is that they do. For some PKs, it causes them to develop some uneasiness around considering ministry as a potential vocation. That’s why, when I went off to theology school after college I made it very clear that I was NOT going to be pastor. I figured my studies of religion and theology were enough to feed my spirituality. I had stopped regularly attending church in college and didn’t feel any sort of drive to return even when surrounded by those who were seeking out ministry as their vocation. 

In 2011, things changed. My mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that originates in the bone marrow and affects the white blood cells. Fortunately, she was diagnosed early and had access to cutting-edge care at the University of Pennsylvania hospital, which has oncologists who specialize in this type of cancer. The prospect of a loved one, or even yourself, going through cancer treatment is terrifying, however. Watching at a distance as she went through chemo, losing weight and eventually her hair, it was hard to not question: Why? Why was this happening?” Like Elijah yelling at God in his frustration, there were many times when I found myself angry with God. My family trusted the doctors, who were sure that at the very least her disease would be manageable in the future, but nonetheless it was scary in the moment.  

I finally got to visit my mom after she had her largest dose of chemo and her own treated stem cells transplanted into her body, resulting in a 17 day long stay at the hospital, from which she had just been released. My parent’s minister, the minister of the church to which my family belonged while my dad served as an interim minister for many years, came to the house to give her communion. I had never experienced communion at home before (which seems like a silly thing to say in today’s context, when some of us have now taken part in communion services over Zoom). For me, communion was always a full church experience – I connected it with being in front of the altar and surrounded by others. Sure, I knew that my dad would go out and give communion to those who were too sick or homebound, but I never experienced it first-hand, let alone from another minister. My mom, dad, and I sat in their living room as Pastor Sharkey unpacked his communion kit and asked my mom about how she was doing, comforting her in the challenges she now faced in her recovery. He went on to offer us each communion, stating the words of institution and placing the wafers in our hands followed by small cups of wine.  

Although I had heard “The body of Christ, given for you,” “The blood of Christ, shed for you” many, many times before, in that specific moment I felt a connection so much deeper than anything I had ever experienced. I felt spiritually fed. I felt supported by God. I knew that God was there to help us get through this moment. It wasn’t that my experiences in the church prior to this were not spiritual or meaningful, but it helped me to see and understand ministry in a different light. I knew that ministry involved the care of others in the most difficult of times, but I don’t think I ever truly understood what it meant to those who were hurting until I experienced it myself. As someone who has innately sought to help others in whatever jobs I take on (perhaps because of my upbringing) I began to see ministry as truly viable option for my future. When the opportunity to serve as the Lutheran Campus Minister here at BU arose after this experience, I jumped at the chance to enter into the beginning steps of a long process of discernment to pursue becoming a minister of Word and Sacrament.  

Throughout my journey of candidacy, I have continued to encounter moments of God’s sustaining presence, keeping me spiritually fed. Getting to know the ins and outs of Chaplaincy from my colleagues, learning about the experiences of my students, and providing care for others has helped me grow into my vocation. The road has not always been easy, it has certainly been long, and there were times when I had those moments with God questioning why I had to go through what I was going through. I found a community of people who support and care for me, cheering me on as I hit each milestone and encouraging me when things didn’t go as planned. Through it all, I felt God’s presence with me in this community. And now, this afternoon, for the first time ever, I will preside at the table for Holy Communion at my ordination service. I can’t put into words what that moment will mean for me. While, again, it won’t necessarily be the experience I thought I would have because of COVID, being able to help direct the congregation that will gather in this sanctuary to the mystery of God’s grace brings my heart joy. Perhaps someone will also find comfort or strength in the words of institution, being spiritually fed through the bread of life and the living waters. 

God stands with us in our hardest moments. When we yell out in our frustration hoping for something better, God hears us. God’s constant presence reminds us that we are not alone. We gather together in community with one another to find the strength to continue through whatever challenges we might face. Christ invites us to partake in the bread of life to have our hunger and thirst perpetually satisfied. We are physically and spiritually fed through Holy Communion, hearing the Word proclaimed and receiving the body and blood of Christ given for each one of us. We are divinely sustained as a community. As the Psalmist states “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who take refuge in God!” Amen. 

-Rev. Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
July 18

Finding Rest

By Marsh Chapel

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Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

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At the Boston University School of Theology, most students pursuing a Master of Divinity degree must take a course called “Contextual Education.” This course immerses the student in field education – in a faith-based setting like a church or a nonprofit. Our regular congregation members are familiar with these students. We have had many of them help lead our weekly services over the years and participated in their growth and learning while they were here. One unique thing about this year-long course is that there is a required learning component. Each student, when they develop their learning agreement with their site, must include a Sabbath practice which they will undertake at least weekly. Some choose a traditional spiritual practice, like reciting the daily offices of prayer in the Episcopal tradition; others choose to spend time outdoors, walking mindfully in their surroundings as the seasons change; still others may choose to undergo a true 24-hour sabbath in which they do not engage in schoolwork or take a break from technology.

The point of requiring sabbath as a learning opportunity is to remind students that their vocations will require a large amount of energy expended for others in ways not encountered in a traditional 9 to 5 job. Rest and rejuvenation is an essential part of all of our lives, but for those in helping professions in which handling the emotions and spiritual wellbeing of others is an essential part, care for the self becomes a critical part of maintaining balance and boundaries. I have had the privilege of supervising and mentoring a handful of contextual education students over the years that I have served as University Chaplain. I have found that Sabbath keeping has often been the most challenging assignment for students to remember and adhere to. This is not to say that all students struggle with this aspect – in fact, I’ve had some students who have found the “requirement” sabbath keeping as part of this course to be a natural fit with their Iifestyles. However, for those who struggle with this aspect of their learning, it’s not because they don’t want to take time to slow down and connect with something larger than themselves. Instead, it is usually tied to their feeling that they must be constantly busy or productive, or that the demands of graduate school, an internship, and/or working a job does not afford them the luxury of rest. Instilling this observance of sabbath is an essential part of training those who will go into ministry, but really is applicable to any person in any vocation.

Self-care and work-life balance have become common place buzzwords today. In the events of the past year, many of us have struggled to find moments of rest and replenishment, whether it’s because of the lack of a physical separation from our workspace, an increased workload, an inability to safely travel, or simply the weight of the world’s news that keeps us from finding rest. Some of us may have been able to achieve some semblance of this balance, building in new routines (walks, meditation, time for prayer) into our new schedule. In our own ways we discovered or rediscovered means of stepping away from the difficult challenges faced in the past year. We need a break. We need to recharge. We need a new perspective, a change of scenery, a stop.

Today’s gospel reading begins with Jesus reminding the apostles that maintaining rest is an important part of ministry. You may remember that a few weeks ago in our lectionary readings, Jesus sent the apostles out, two by two, to heal and teach others in the surrounding area. He sent them out without any provisions other than their staff, a tunic, and sandals, with the advice that if they were not welcome, they should just shake it off and go to the next town. The term “apostle” here is not referring necessarily to the “The Twelve Apostles” but rather is a generalized term related to the Greek “apostello” which means “to send out (with a message).” Therefore these are the people Jesus has sent out with a message of healing and repentance, to spread among the people. Apparently the apostles had been very successful in their apostello. Upon returning to Jesus, they were so sought after by the people who heard of their ministry that they had no time to even eat! Jesus directs the apostles that they are to go to a deserted place and rest for a while. The apostles listen to Jesus because he has directed them successfully in their ministry thus far. They have built a relationship of trust in Him and his teachings. He is a successful leader, a compassionate and good Shepherd.

Their rest doesn’t last long, however. Even though they’ve made passage on a boat to go to this secluded place of rest, the people who have heard of Jesus and his apostles gather in crowds and follow them along the shorelines. For me, this description invokes that famous beginning scene of “A Hard Day’s Night” in which the Beatles are trying to hide or outrun groups of teenage fans who are chasing them in hopes of touching or being close to them. In my mind I see people clamoring for Jesus with the group getting larger and larger with each town they encounter. A growing flock of people all driven in the direction of their shepherd. Unlike the Beatles, however, Jesus assesses the situation and decides that the proper thing to do in this situation is not to hide or try to outrun the people. Instead, he forgoes his rest and addresses those in need.

In all of our readings today, we have heard the theme of shepherding over and over again. In Jeremiah, the Lord warns against destructive shepherds who fail to lead the people on a path of righteousness and compares the people of Israel to “Sheep without a Shepherd.” In Psalm 23, we hear the familiar words of how the Lord acts as our shepherd, caring for and protecting us from evil. In the gospel, Mark compares the people on the shoreline with shepherdless sheep, echoing the sentiments of the Jeremiah text that they are in need of care and effective leadership.

Shepherding is one of the oldest professions. In the agrarian nomadic culture of the ancient Israelites, it was well known as an occupation for the poor. Shepherds are not farmers – while they may be tied to a farm eventually for the economic purposes of sheep (shearing and meat production) they are independent in their task of tending and protecting their flock. Being a shepherd is a tough job. It is all consuming at times, especially when lambing season comes. It requires care, fortitude, attention, and an ability to set boundaries.

We are familiar with the imagery of the Good Shepherd. In fact, looking at the back of the chapel as I speak right now, I can see Jesus depicted as the Good Shepherd in the large stained glass window above the balcony. In one hand Jesus holds a shepherd’s staff, outstretching his other hand to the congregation, inviting them in. To the left, a window depicting women and children who gaze upon him, and on the right a mixture of other adults adoring him. “Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep” it states above the images of the people. Jesus is the Good Shepherd because he loves and cares for his flock. We are reminded of the actions of a Good Shepherd in the text of

Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd; I lack for nothing

He makes me lie down in green pastures

He leads me to water where I may rest;

He revives my spirit:

For his name’s sake he guides me in the right paths.

Even were I to walk through a valley of deepest darkness

I should fear no harm, for you are with me,

Your shepherd’s staff and crook afford me comfort.

You spread a table for me in the presence of my enemies;

You have richly anointed my head with oil,

And my cup brims over.

Goodness and love unfailing will follow me

All the days of my life,

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord throughout the years to come.

The use of the term shepherd fits for the kind of work Jesus does. He provides his sheep with what they need (see the feeding of the 5,000 which is actually contained in the verses omitted from this week’s lectionary reading). He knows the appropriate actions in the appropriate season, including when to rest and when to be active. He shows his care through acts of healing and disregard for human-created laws that interfere with the work of God. He guides and sets boundaries through his teachings. He protects his flock from evil.  Even more than that, he knows how to tend to new flocks of sheep, even if he has never encountered them before.

I see today’s gospel lesson as the story of two flocks. The first is the group of apostles. This is the small flock with whom Jesus has developed extensive relationship. They have learned from him. They trust his words and actions. They have been entrusted by him to carry the power of healing to others and to share his teachings with the wider world with the knowledge that they will continue to follow him and return to him for their continued growth and strength. The second flock are all those people who have heard of Jesus and “recognize” him from what they have been told by others. They probably do not know the full extent of his teachings. They definitely do not know that he is the Son of God. Many of them probably know that he and his group of disciples heal people. That is reason enough for them to get excited and seek him out. Imagine how the stories shared about Jesus and his miracles must have sounded after they had passed from city to city, gaining momentum as his infamy continues. A miracle man who has healed many who were on the verge of death, or had no hope for healing is making himself available to others. No wonder they flocked to see him! These two flocks still need the guidance of Jesus, but their needs are dictated by their current relationship with Jesus. The first flock, Flock A let’s call them, composed of the apostles have different needs than Flock B, the flock of the sick and uninformed.

Flock B consists of those who have great needs. Remember they are the sheep without a shepherd. They have no one to care for them, to guide them. They are literally running themselves ragged trying to find Jesus to solve their problems. If you’ve ever seen sheep without the guidance of a shepherd or a sheep dog, or ineffective shepherding, you may not realize how quickly things can go wrong. Because sheep are a flocking animal, they travel in a large group. This helps naturally protect them from predators, but it also can make it very difficult to stop them once they all start heading in the same direction. Shepherds are effective in drawing boundaries for the sheep to ensure their safety – keeping them in the good grazing areas and protecting them from predators. Without even those basic needs being met, the sheep, while having some natural inclinations for self-preservation, are more likely to find themselves in unsafe conditions. Jesus sees that these people are in danger because they lack the guidance and care of effective leadership. Even though the disciples need rest, Jesus sees that the crises these people are facing is of utmost importance. The members of Flock B also need rest, in the form of existential calming. Rest will come for all. Love must come first.

Flock A is more like a domesticated flock. They have come to know and depend on their shepherd. They have had their basic needs met (well, with the exception of being so busy that they have no time to eat). Jesus recognizes that this flock, who has been consistent, has gone out to serve others, has done their best to serve God, needs a break. One, for obvious reasons of burnout – people cannot keep working efficiently without time away from their job. But secondly, a spiritual life is one of balance. It requires both activity and contemplation. While many of us may see our task as Christians to love and serve others, we must also have opportunities for spiritual refreshment in hearing the Word proclaimed, nourishing ourselves in holy communion, and taking time to connect with our Creator through prayer and meditation. On the flip side, contemplation without action is not a fully realized Christian life either. Faith should lead to good works in service of others. In a cyclical fashion, rest and action, contemplation and service to others, feed each other in maintaining a healthy balance.

The balance of our work and life, our spiritual activity and contemplation, our outwardness and inwardness is something explored by a wide variety of writers, but perhaps none better than the great agrarian poet and essayist and devout Christian, Wendell Berry. Berry, who owns a farm in rural Kentucky, advocates for the slowing down of life, a turn away from consumerism, of reconnecting with nature, of understanding the earth and all of its cycles. As a farmer, Berry has kept his own flock of sheep, although now in diminished numbers due to his age and ability to care for them. Berry has consistently written poems reflecting Sabbath practice mixed with his agrarian lifestyle for over 40 years. One such poem, number IX from 1991 entitled “The Farm” encapsulates the rhythm of farming life through Berry’s poetic lens. In this excerpt from two sections of the poem, Berry highlights the challenges of the daily work of tending sheep and provides reflection on the need for rest and quiet in a secluded place, not unlike the messages we heard in today’s gospel. He writes:

Near winter’s end, your flock

Will bear their lambs, and you

Must be alert, out late

And early at the barn,

To guard against the grief

You cannot help but feel

When any young thing made

For life falters at birth

And dies. Save the best hay

To feed the suckling ewes.

Shelter them in the barn

Until the grass is strong,

Then turn them out to graze

The green hillsides, good pasture

With shade and water close.

Then watch for dogs, whose sport

Will be to kill your sheep

And ruin all your work.

Or old Coyote may

Become your supper guest,

Unasked and without thanks;

He’ll just excerpt a lamb

And dine before you know it.

But don’t because of that,

Make war against the world

And its wild appetites…

 

To rest, go to the woods

Where what is made is made

Without your thought or work.

Sit down; begin the wait

For small trees to grow big,

Feeding on earth and light.

Their good result is song

The winds must bring, that trees

Must wait to sing, and sing

Longer than you can wait.

Soon you must go. The trees,

Your seniors, standing thus,

Acknowledged in your eyes,

Stand as your praise and prayer.

Your rest is in this place

Of what you cannot be

And what you cannot do.

 

But make your land recall,

In workdays of the fields,

The Sabbath of the woods.

We are not all shepherd-less sheep. We have the guidance, love, and care of our Good Shepherd. He has taught us the ways in which we can reach out to others and share the good news of his life and ministry, growing our flock, bringing in those who may be lost or shepherd-less. He sets boundaries for us, reminding us where the good places to rest are and taking care of us when we are most in need through our faith in Him. Just as we must find balance in the social and physical aspects of our lives, experiencing times of activity and times of rest, we must also strive to seek the balance necessary to feed our spiritual lives as well. In Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we can find that rest.

Rest is holy. Rest is sacred. Amen.

Wendell Berry, 1991:XI “The Farm” in A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979 – 1997, Washington, D.C. Counterpoint publishers, 1998. P. 137-138, 147.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
June 13

Extraordinary Time

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

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Good morning! We are at the beginning of that season that I never really understood as a child which extends all the way through the summer until we reach Advent: Ordinary Time. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I always thought of this season simply as “the time after Pentecost.” I legitimately did not know that it went by another name. So, imagine my surprise when in my first year of seminary I stumbled across the terminology of “Ordinary Time” when learning the church calendar. How ridiculous, I thought. Who calls it “Ordinary Time”? Well, apparently a lot of people, including the Catholic Church, the Anglican and Episcopal churches, the United Methodist Church, and even my own beloved Lutheran Church. Ordinary time as a moniker just seems so…ordinary. I don’t think it accurately encompasses the journey we travel with Jesus and the disciples, learning about his ministry, his healing, his conflicts, and his connection to the world. The celebration of Pentecost shows us the dramatic effect of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. This season is not one to merely proclaim as “ordinary”, but it continues to highlight the extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit through the life and ministry of Jesus.

One of the things today’s gospel lesson teaches us about is the importance of relationship in God’s kingdom. We learn about family, conflict, and the important role the Holy Spirit plays in joining us together and transforming us to form strong bonds rooted in God’s power. But to be fair, this story is a little all over the place – Jesus is trying to eat, people say he’s gone out of his mind, the Pharisees accuse him of being in league with demons, Jesus rebukes anyone who rejects the Holy Spirit, and he also emphasizes his relationship with his chosen family in the Holy Spirit over his family of origin. That’s a lot of ground to cover for a story that is only fifteen verses long and otherwise might be a simple story of an ordinary homecoming.

In any normal circumstance, a family would be excited to see their son or brother return after having departed on a journey. However, Jesus’ reputation precedes him. While on his journey he’s proclaimed new teachings about the good news of the Kingdom of God, casted out demons, healed people, invited disciples to follow him, hung out and eaten with the marginalized, broken Sabbath laws, and gained fame among other Galileans who do not know fully who he is but want to do God’s will. People in Galilee and the surrounding area are sharply divided on what Jesus’ words and actions mean in light of established customs and Jewish law. His own family does not understand what he is doing. Remember, the story of Jesus’ life and ministry in Mark does not begin with his birth but rather at his rebirth when he is baptized by John. Jesus’ supernatural actions and challenge to powers that be is not a known entity to his family before he heads out to do his ministry. No angelic announcement foretold who Jesus was and what he was meant to do. In fact, this is the only time that Mary is mentioned in Mark’s gospel – her role in Jesus’ life is greatly diminished in comparison to the other Synoptic writers. Jesus’ family, instead, think he’s gone out of his mind, not conforming with societal and religious norms as they have come to understand them.

I’m certain most of us can relate to that experience of young adulthood when you or your child left home for college or a job and came back home for the first time. I encounter this frequently in my role as a University Chaplain – that first Thanksgiving or winter break at home can be a challenge for many students. They have changed since they went to school – gaining more freedom, learning who they are and what they want to become in a new environment, encountering new people who have different backgrounds and experiences can shift attitudes and a sense of self. Parents may be surprised at this person who arrives home – students may have even done something to cause their parents question whether they have gone out of their mind. The instinct to protect a child is a strong feeling, as is the longing for the person who once was but now who has started to self-differentiate from their family. However, most of the time we adjust; we manage to keep our families together and accept that people grow and change as they get older, but not without some growing pains. These students may have even started to form their own “families” outside of their family of origin – those who support them through difficult times, celebrate in joyful times, and overall, just “get” them. The desire to connect with others and feel a sense of belonging is at the core of our being, and as we grow and develop into adults, our sense of self leads us to create new systems of support and care.

Returning back to the gospel, another group that has certain expectations of who and what Jesus should be also appears in the story at this point. The Pharisees from Jerusalem have also heard about Jesus’ actions around the Galilean countryside and have their own opinions of what is going on. While Jesus’ family might be trying to protect him in his perceived insanity, the Pharisees come with a much bolder accusation: “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” To them, Jesus must be in league with evil forces because he is not following the religious laws they enforce. Jesus is not acting in expected or “ordinary” ways as a Jewish man or even teacher. Jesus rebuts their accusations by pointing out the logical fallacy of their argument – how can Satan cast out Satan? Truly it must take something or someone much stronger and different to “bind up” the strong man. Here, Jesus gives the Pharisees and the crowd an apocalyptic hint of his role in the world – to prevent the work of evil in the world and provide forgiveness.

We may be taken aback at what Jesus says next though. He draws a strict line between who is “in” and “out” in the kingdom of God. The good news is that most people are included in God’s kingdom – sins will be forgiven by a gracious and loving God. But, and this is a huge BUT, there is one sin that cannot be tolerated –blaspheming the Holy Spirit. God will not forgive those who commit this sin. It feels awfully weighty to us as the readers. We have come to expect that God forgives unconditionally. How can we reconcile these two claims? Also, how do we know if we are blaspheming the Holy Spirit if the work of the Holy Spirit is often a mystery to us? Perhaps the best way to think about this statement by Jesus is to place it in context of the Gospel of Mark. Presbyterian pastor James Ayers in his commentary on this passage urges that we see Jesus’ words here as a sort of tether that lets us know that the Holy Spirit is the force that can transform hopelessness into hope and can cause restoration in our lives. The only way that we truly be against God is to actively reject the Holy Spirit’s presence in the world. What we really must be aware of is that the power of the Holy Spirit continues to work on and with us to create our loving relationship with God. Jesus is laying the groundwork for what it means to be a part of God’s family.

With this knowledge about maintaining our relationship with the divine, we turn back to the conflicting realities of Jesus’ closest relationships. When Jesus’ family calls for him to come outside, he claims those he is inside sharing a meal with to be his mother and brothers. Is this a complete rejection of his biological family? Maybe. It is a definitive claim on the importance of the kind of relationship that Jesus calls us to cultivate in our lives. Jesus claims those who are doing the will of God as his siblings. In that moment, it excludes his family because they do not understand who he is and what he is doing.

Jesus wields his power in this narrative. It is not the kind of power that is most recognizable in Jesus’ time or even our own time – economic, political, or even physical – but is instead rooted in love, hope, justice, humility, servanthood, and restoration. In claiming outsiders from the rest of society to be literal insiders as members of God’s family, Jesus upends the expectations of what power should look like. In performing exorcisms and healing people, he restores right order and enables those who have been healed to be a part of society once again. He shows love to those who have been excluded, sees value in human life over the strictures of human laws, and identifies the humanity of those who have been deemed less-than because of their jobs, their status in society, or their physical or mental wellness. He is able to bind up the “strong man” because of his power of love and transformation rather than destruction. Jesus’ power is not rooted in fear or coercion, but in hope and love.

In this past year, many of us have spent a lot of time inside, especially in our homes. We’ve also probably gotten a great deal of quality time with our immediate families, or maybe with our chosen “bubble” of people. These are people that we trust. In the midst of a pandemic, there had to be a certain level of understanding about the appropriate behaviors and interactions for each of the members of our “immediate households” to maintain our health and wellbeing. We became vigilant about who was and wasn’t a close contact, redefining our physical relationship to others by only allowing certain people to share our spaces. Some of us have had time to reconnect with family members in new ways, while others have been physically separated from loved ones for extended periods of time.

Perhaps because we have had more time to think about or spend with our immediate households, we have come to recognize the importance of establishing and maintaining strong relationships with others. In this time of forced isolation from the outside world, we’ve also come to recognize the many ways in which our society is broken. COVID made us acutely aware of economic, racial, and other social inequalities that have been present for the majority of our country’s history, but which we have continually failed to address. In the early days of the pandemic, after our initial shock of having our lives upended, many of us vowed that we would never be able to go back to “normal” again in light of Black Lives Matter protests, socio-economic inequality, and growing divisions in our country. Some of us now had more time to really reflect on what was going on in the world around us and to decide how we were going to be more involved, less dismissive, and seek justice and restoration for others.

Now, in this new phase of the pandemic, where it is certainly not over but is at least on the decline in the United States, we are ready and eager to go back outside into the world. As mask restrictions lift and we begin to reunite with our friends (after, of course, we have been fully vaccinated) it might be easy to slip into our old ways of being. The busy-ness of life might return again and our care and concern for the greater socio-economic issues we were faced with during the pandemic may start fade into the background. We may slip into our own “ordinary” time where things go back to mostly “normal”. We may lose sight of the importance of the relationships we share not only with those in our “bubbles” but with the greater world. Certain aspects of the pandemic will leave their marks on us as we move forward, but how will we consider what this past year has meant to us in how we interact with our families of origin, our families of choice, and the surrounding world around us?

Many of us have a new clarity about the importance of relationships and not taking advantage of the time and opportunities to support and connect with others. Sometimes this kind of recognition can only come after we have lost something important. Dr. Don Saliers, American theologian and Professor Emeritus at the Candler School of Theology as well as father of Emily Saliers of the folk duo the Indigo Girls, summarizes our experience of the relationship of being a part of God’s family as this:

“Living out the form of discipleship Christ bids us follow means a new solidarity with all humanity.  It requires that we learn with him to weep with those who weep and to rejoice with those who rejoice. It asks us to live into the densities of human joy and suffering. It calls us to find ourselves precisely in our willingness to give up our self-absorption.  This is a demanding task, requiring a willingness to follow him into a new solidarity with God’s whole family.”

One may hear echoes of the great theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s claim of the Cost of Discipleship in Dr. Salier’s statement. While God’s family welcomes all, it also calls on us to be willing to serve others with an open heart without letting ourselves and our egos get in the way of justice and righteousness. God’s will, while grounded in love, does not mean that it won’t come without its challenges in enacting it in the world. It means standing up to oppression. It means crying out with those in pain. It means recognizing and responding to the needs of others, even if those needs infringe upon our personal wants. To live authentically into God’s will means being mindful of how our faith informs our actions and allowing that deep inward voice to guide us along the way.

Jesus, in his ministry and his teachings, demonstrates what it means to follow God’s will. The Holy Spirit acts on us to create faith within us and then we continue to strengthen that faith through hearing the Word of God and sharing the sacraments with one another. The Holy Spirit moves in us to bear the good fruit of our faithfulness in service and care for others. It motivates us to seek justice for those who are marginalized, to create wholeness where brokenness haunts many, to acknowledge the humanity of others, and to see how we are inextricably tied together with them. Our faith is in the one who redeems and makes us whole, and thereby we are called to share the power of Christ through our own words and actions.

This is not an ordinary time. These weeks after Pentecost are an extraordinary time to hear the Word and works of God through the body of Christ. Let us live into these “Sundays after Pentecost” with a renewed sense of being siblings of Christ and God’s children. Amen.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
April 4

The Story Doesn’t End Here: Easter Sermon on Mark 16:1-8

By Marsh Chapel

An audio recording of this service is not available.

Mark 16:1-8

Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

How good it is to be here, in person, worshipping together with all of you for the first time in over a year! Easter has arrived! We gather together in community, new and familiar faces, early this Easter morning to share in the joy of the Holy Spirit at the news of the impossible becoming possible and the glory of our salvation through Jesus Christ, our Lord. We’ve donned our Sunday best, are surrounded by the beauty of the creation, have the sounds of beautiful music from the Marsh Chapel Choir, and feel the exuberant energy of this festival day. We are glad to be together, although distanced and outdoors, to share in worship together. For some of us, including me, it has been a very long time since we have been able to worship in person! We joyfully hear the words of “Christ the Lord is Risen Today!” and shout our “Alleluias,” listening for the good news of grace freely given through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

However, our Gospel reading for today does not seem to match the positive feelings we might have about our service this morning. In fact, I’d go as far to say that it’s somewhat off-putting given the celebratory nature we expect from our Easter service. In Mark’s telling of the resurrection, the oldest of the gospel accounts, we are greeted only with an empty tomb, a man dressed in white, and women who deeply loved Jesus left in stunned silence, too scared to go and share what they have witnessed. Most scholars agree that the original ending of Mark is verse 8, where our gospel reading ends today. There is no triumphant celebration of victory over death in this ending, just stunned silence.

Imagine yourself following along with these three women – Mary Magdelene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome – as they approach the tomb where Jesus had been laid days earlier. These three women had seen the traumatic death of Jesus from afar, having been Jesus’ followers with other women from Jerusalem during Jesus’ ministry (Mk. 15:40-41). They saw him crucified, give up his final cry, and die. They now approach his tomb with trepidation – they could not anoint his body before this point because it was the Sabbath. The violent death Jesus faced at the hands of the authorities does not dissuade them from their task to make sure his body is properly prepared for burial. Instead of fear of being discovered, their biggest concern is that they will not be able to access his tomb because of the large, heavy rock that had been used to seal it. The task seems almost impossible, but they are moved forward by their love, care, and devotion to Jesus in these last moments with his body.

It is no surprise then that the women are shocked when the rock had already been moved away! No one else would have any reason to visit Jesus’ tomb. Who else could have possibly moved away this stone? Not only that, but where is Jesus’ body?! This is not at all what the women expected when they set out to the tomb that early morning. Their worry shifts to alarm as they encounter the young man in white. This young man in white, perhaps an angelic figure, is not identifiable by any of these women, but he knows exactly whom they seek (Jesus of Nazareth), where he has gone (He is not here…he is going to Galilee), and what the women and the disciples (who are not there) are to do now (Go, Tell!). He tries to calm the women: “Do not be alarmed,” he states. But it’s too late. The women, those same women who had been devoted followers of Jesus throughout his ministry are alarmed. Even more than that, their alarm turns to fear and doubt.

Doubt is the antithesis of faith. Faith requires trust. Fear prevents the women from fully putting their trust in the words of the young man in white. He instructs the women, “But go, tell” the disciples of Jesus’ resurrection and plans to meet them in Galilee. The women don’t “go” or “tell.” In placing trust in their own perception of the events surrounding Jesus’ resurrection they falter in their faith in trusting God and Jesus, even though Jesus has expressed previously that he will return to them. Many of us would have the same reaction if placed in a similar situation. The mixture of emotions with the traumatic events which have taken place may have well left us too afraid to say anything to anyone else. In today’s political and social climate, some may relate with feeling too uneasy with our own religious tradition to be bold proclaimers of our faith to others.            We fear judgment of our beliefs or that our experiences of the Divine will not be understood by others who have not shared in them.

Mark’s gospel does not shout the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, but quietly retreats into stunned silence. What a strange way to end the gospel that is supposed to declare the Good News of Jesus Christ. What are we supposed to take away from such an abrupt ending? It would be easy to assume that Mark was mistaken in writing the ending this way – that perhaps the rest of Mark’s gospel was lost and there was a more satisfying ending in which the resurrected Jesus actually appeared to the women and the disciples and told them what to do next. In fact, early Christians were so certain that the ending of Mark must’ve been a mistake that they added in their own set of verses around the 2nd century C.E. to make the story feel more “complete.”

However, most New Testament scholars now recognize that the choice to leave the gospel on a cliffhanger may have been intentional by its writer. The silence of the women opens up the possibility for those reading the text to proclaim the good news.[1] Even though the written word of the gospel ends at verse 8, the story does not end here. You see, Jesus is not just a dead historical figure and the resurrection is not a one-time event. We’ve been saying so all morning – Alleluia, Christ is Risen! IS RISEN! Jesus continues to live and act in the resurrection.

We are a part of this Easter story. The man in white at the tomb speaks to us, just as the Holy Spirit continues to guide us in our faith. As New Testament scholar, Ira Brent Diggers, points out, “Christian discipleship is always Easter ministry.”[2] We continue to experience this Easter story throughout the rest of the year. An empty tomb gives us the opportunity to see how Jesus is and can be present to us in our lives. The good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins is not just that it happened, but that it continues to happen for you (LC V, BoC 469.21-22). We are justified by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and receive the free gift of the grace of God through our faith. We might have our own moments of doubt or trepidation in claiming or proclaiming our faith, but the Holy Spirit through the Word and sacraments reminds us that we do not have to be afraid, we need only trust in God and God’s promises (LC V, BoC 473.61-63). We may feel lost in knowing what to do next in the face of adversity, but God continues to remain steadfast with us no matter the circumstances, even if the tomb is empty.

Our faith in the promises set forth by God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit bring us together to form the church and to be God’s witness to the world (Ap VII & VIII, BoC 175.13). Faith is a gift to us from God. We do nothing to manufacture it, but instead receive it through the means of grace. God meets us where we are through hearing the scriptures and participating in the sacraments. We grow in faith each time we hear the Word proclaimed, sharing in that moment with others and allowing its messages to touch us personally (Ap IV, BoC 131.67). We encounter Jesus each time we hear the words of institution – “This is my body, given for you…This is my blood, shed for youDo this in remembrance of me…” (LC V, BoC 473.65). When we partake in the Lord’s Supper, it physically binds us to the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice through eating the bread and drinking the wine (AP XXIV, BoC 271.73). We witness God’s choice of us and others each time a new member is brought into our community through Holy Baptism. We feel the Holy Spirit move and inspire us as we join together in Word, sacrament, and song as the church, whether we are physically together or sharing in the Word virtually through radio waves and internet streams. In all of these acts we continue to strengthen our faith in God and the relationships we form with one another in the Body of Christ here and beyond the walls of this church. Faith has the power to be transformative in our lives, opening our hearts and enabling us to be in service to others. The voice of the Holy Spirit invites us to “go, tell” others about the amazing things Christ does for us. An empty tomb is a sign of possibility. The story doesn’t end here. It’s only just beginning. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

[1] Tucker S. Ferda, “The Ending of Mark and the Faithfulness of God: An Apocalyptic Resolution to Mark 16:8,” Journal of Theological Interpretation, Vol. 13, No. 1, 2019.

[2] Ira Brent Diggers, “April 4, 2021: Commentary on Mark 16:1-8,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-mark-161-8-7 , accessed April 4, 2021.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
November 15

Children of Light

By Marsh Chapel

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Matthew 25:14-30

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Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. I am so thankful for the opportunity afforded me by the Dean to share the gospel with you today. I haven’t spoken in this chapel for nearly seven months. Seven months! It’s hard to believe when this place has been such an integral part of my own learning and growing in ministry. To our in-person congregation – we miss you, as I’m sure you miss each other.

We stand at the precipice of a new year – in two short weeks, the new liturgical year will begin and we will be plunged into the wonder and anticipation of Advent. Of course, Advent will look and feel different this year. We won’t be gathering in the church to hear the Word and sing as we normally would. Instead, we will listen to our services on the radio or online, still appreciating the season from our own location. We might also instead light an advent wreath in our homes, tracking the weeks of advent as they pass, participating in a daily devotional series, such as the one Marsh Chapel will offer this year with readings, reflections and some sounds of the season from the Marsh Chapel choir. (Thank you for enduring my plug – more information can be found on the Marsh Chapel website at bu.edu/chapel). Advent, which usually culminates with community gathered to celebrate the birth of the Lord will instead need to be celebrated in creative new ways. While we mourn for those things which we have lost due to current circumstances, we also wait in hopeful anticipation for a new day.

We don’t know what the few weeks or months will have in store for us. Increased coronavirus case numbers have us concerned as we enter into a season in which our souls are fed by interactions with friends and families at holiday gatherings. How much longer will we be separated from those we love? How much longer will our lives feel upended? As the shorter days of winter slowly begin to creep into our lives we find ourselves facing impatience, loneliness, and uncertainty. Truly, the only thing we can be certain of are that things won’t be the same as they were last year, or even the year before that. But we are adaptable. We have proof of that in the past eight months. In speaking with our virtual yoga instructor a few weeks ago, she reflected on the adaptability we have all grown accustomed to in this time. Having been accidentally locked out of the regular space she used to livestream the yoga class she said she had quickly decided that if no one was able to unlock the room for her in time for the class to start, she could find an alternative space in the same building and make it work. She commented “But that’s just the way things are right now, right? We’re adaptable.” Challenges arise and we find new ways of being in the world. We cling to the things that give us hope for the future – promising news of an effective vaccine, remembering that we are not alone in what we are experiencing, and our trust in God to see us through this time.

But as with any practice in exercising patience, we grow tired. We want to go back to our normal lives. We want to see our families. We want to eat in restaurants, go on vacation, celebrate birthdays together. We grow weary of the restrictions placed on us thinking, “It won’t be me. I won’t get sick.” We let down our guard. We think we know better – and yes, while our need for human interaction is an important part of our existence as social creatures, we need to think past our individual needs to those around us. This is no small task, as our drive is often focused on ourselves first and foremost, a reminder of our tendency to turn away from God and God’s commands to our own wants. We may think here of Augustine and Martin Luther’s use of the term “incurvatis in se” – a fancy Latin way of saying being turned in on oneself. To be turned in on oneself is to lose sight of God as the source of all and, in these two theologians’ perspective, the source of all sin. We instead are called to live outward toward others, rooted in our faith in God and guided by the Holy Spirit.

Today’s lesson and gospel readings tell us something about patience. Both are concerned with the eventual return of Christ. For Matthew – the parable that Jesus tells about the master who leaves and then later comes back alludes to the death, resurrection, and eventual second coming of Christ and the importance of the right attitude one must maintain in awaiting the return of Christ. In 1 Thessalonians, the congregation needs a reminder of who they are and what they can endure in the face of outside challenges with the support of God as they wait. Patience and assuredness in who we are as Christians help us to navigate challenging situations in which our focus is drawn away from God toward our own self interests.

In today’s passage from 1 Thessalonians, Paul speaks to a congregation who is waiting, somewhat impatiently, for the return of Christ. The church in Thessaloniki is in the midst of Roman rule and as the time from Jesus’ death and resurrection grows and his promise to return (the pariousa) seems to be fading, the people are growing weary. Paul, however, is trying to encourage them to not lose their identity as Christians and the hope found in Christ’s resurrection. The world around them claims to have “peace and security,” the slogan of the Roman Empire, but Paul warns that there is no peace or security when trust is placed in the wrong things, primarily in anything but God.[1] Those who trust in darkness and fail to be sober in waiting for the return of Christ will be taken by surprise by the “sudden destruction” created by such an event. For faith is nothing more that total trust and reliance on God and God’s promises, a gift fulfilled to us by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul calls to those who are the children of light, those who reside in the day and follow the light and pathway of Christ set before them.

Paul contrasts who “the children of light” are, that is those who are a part of the church in that time, with those who are in darkness, asleep, or not sober.  This is a direct correlation with the worship of the god Dionysus which was popular in the area.[2] Those who worshiped Dionysus held large drunken gatherings at night. Paul knows that the people in Thessaloniki may be tempted to partake in these activities. He cautions the church that they need to stay on the path of faith in God and mutual support of one another, something that they have already been doing. He encourages them to stay vigilant to who they are.

Paul uses the language of spiritual armor to help the Thessalonians continue to not only recognize who they are internally, but to show it to the rest of the world. A breastplate made of faith and love and a helmet made of hope may seem woefully inadequate to protect an individual from real threats of physical harm, but Paul here encourages that faith, love, and hope are essential to the life of the church.[3] As a community they grow stronger by placing faith, hope, and love at the center of their well being. They should not allow their fundamental values to be changed in worshiping the wrong sources of peace and security, and should continue to live in a community of trust and mutual understanding. This will be their strength in the midst of physical, social, or psychological dangers.

We hear similar themes of patience and trust in the Gospel from Matthew today. The Master, who can be interpreted either as God or as Christ, gives the generous gift of a “talent” or large sum of money to each of his slaves. Now, we could just take the “talent” at face value as a story about sound financial investment, but instead, let us consider Jesus as the Master and the talent as the good news of Jesus Christ entrusted to Christians after Jesus’ death, but before his promised return. The lesson we learn from the third slave is that what is given to us from God or even through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, what is entrusted to us, is not meant to be hidden away as some sort of secret, but rather is meant to be shared with others.[4] Just like the community in Thessaloniki, we are meant to share the good news of Christ with others – God entrusts us with this message and we, in turn, place our trust back in God.

Sharing a message doesn’t come without risks, though. The other two slaves in the story took a chance in trading their talents with the expectation of making more. Sharing the gospel with others can feel like that – as if we are being somewhat reckless with the precious message that has been entrusted to us, especially if we share it with people who won’t accept it. But we must take that chance anyway, sharing our love and faith with others with hope grounded in our relationship with God through Christ. As children of light, we shine that light in ways that others can see – we shouldn’t hide it under a bushel, as Jesus instructs earlier in Matthew (Matthew 5:15) but rather remember that we are people of salt and light, called to bring the good news to others.

Many of us know the song, “this little light of mine,” a spiritual turned civil rights anthem turned Sunday school song. I couldn’t help but think about this song as I reflected on our calling to be the children of light. In it, we are reminded not only of the light granted to us by God, but that this light brings joy for others to see and experience.

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine

Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

The song is simple. It’s easy to sing along with, easily transmutable to many situations. But it’s simplicity should not be confused with its power. Just like the faith, love, and hope found in the community of Thessaloniki, there is great power and resistance located in this song. In a piece from All Things considered in 2018 focused on the spiritual, Rev. Osagyefo (oh-sah-GEE-fo)  Uhuru (ooh-WHO-roo) Sekou (SAY-koo) spoke about the effective use of singing the song in response to white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville, VA.[5] It not only united the people who were counter-protesting, but it took those demonstrating by surprise. Rev. Sekou commented “The tensions went down … and it shook the Nazis…They didn’t know what to do with all that joy. We weren’t going to let the darkness have the last word.”[6] In traditional nonviolent protest fashion, those in power were caught off guard by the voices of those who wanted to share light with others. Their message wasn’t of hate or violence, but instead of sharing brightness, an in-dwelling sense of God with others. A feeling that cannot be easily removed or taken away when trust is placed in the right source.

What if we used this song as our anthem to help us get through this difficult time? What if, everyday, we took some time to sing it to ourselves, listen to a recording of it, or even just sing it in our heads? It might act as a prayer for us as we begin our days to remember that number one, we are not alone in whatever struggles we are facing, and number two, we have the ability to share our light with others even when life feels like it is at its darkest? I encourage you to take some time to think about incorporating this song, what it means to you, into your life as we enter into Advent this year as a reminder of the hope that sustains us.

How can we share our light with others? For some of us, the acts of wearing a mask in public, keeping our distance from others, and staying home when possible is the way we are sharing our Christian love with others. The presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, recently reminded members of my church that although we are “COVID-fatigued” we still needed to show care and concern for one another by following the protocols laid out for us by experts.[7] These include: washing our hands, staying away from large crowds, physically distancing, and wearing a mask. Others of us have used this time to make a concerted effort to reach out to friends and family. They check in on people’s emotional and spiritual welafare, sharing stories and concerns with one another. Still others have put energy into new tasks, picking up a new hobby that can assist others, like making masks, or learning about and acting for justice issues. There are many ways we can shine our light for others to see and be warmed by, maybe even catching alight themselves.

I know we are tired. We are impatient. We are unsure about the future. We face challenges that affect our health, our livelihoods, and our relationships. We yearn for something different. However, we are children of light. For us, as Christians, we are reminded of the ways we receive grace from God when we hear the Word. Scripture serves as the spiritual fuel to continue bolstering and growing our faith in God, in whom we trust, so that we can live out our lives in ways that support others. We let our light shine in the face of darkness because that is what God’s love does for us. We may not be able to gather in person, but we can certainly gather in spirit with one another through hearing the Word expressed each week. Our light continues to be fueled by the source of all.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Karoline Lewis, “Peace and Security,” Working Preacher,  https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/peace-and-security, November 9, 2014. Accessed November 10, 2020.

[2] Holly Hearon, “Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11,” Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33/commentary-on-1-thessalonians-51-11, November 15, 2020, Accessed November 9, 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Brian P. Stoffregen, “Matthew 25:14-20, Proper 28, Year A,” Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes on Crossmarks, “http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt25x14.htm, Accessed November 9, 2020.

[5] Eric Deggan, “’This Little Light Of Mine’ Shines On, A Timeless Tool Of Resistance,” NPR All Things Considered, August 6, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/08/06/630051651/american-anthem-this-little-light-of-mine-resistance, Accessed November 10, 2020.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, “Be Well and Wear a Mask,” ELCA Facebook Video, November 6, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=2671525993101483, accessed November 10, 2020.

Sunday
April 19

The Right Time

By Marsh Chapel

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1 Peter 1:3-9

John 20:19-31

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          It’s strange to preach this sermon to an empty chapel with the doors locked. As we continue practicing safe social distancing, Marsh Chapel has moved to recording a new sermon and greeting each week with pre-recorded material from services in years past, when we were able to physically gather together in community. We pray that we will all safely return to greeting one another from closer than a 6-foot distance and come together in the Nave of Marsh Chapel in the future, but not before public health officials tell us it is possible to do so. In the meantime, we are glad for our virtual community and hope that you and yours are well and pray for those experiencing illness or loss at this time.

          When the concern for public health arose in mid-March we learned that staying at home if we were non-essential workers would be one of the best ways to “flatten the curve.” Those of us able to do so without losing employment find ourselves in a privileged position. Students were sent home to learn from afar via online platforms and parents’ work schedules were quickly upended by balancing family responsibilities with working from home. The first few weeks we spent trying to adjust to sharing space with our loved ones 24/7, trying to establish new routines, and adapting to remote socializing and business. Initially we may have thought that this would only last a few weeks, we would get back to normal sooner rather than later and these series of events would just be a bump in the road that we would look back on later in the year and say “oh, yeah, those couple of weeks were strange, but I’m glad that’s over now.” As one week of staying at home turned into two weeks, turned into three, and now a month, it appears that this reality will be our foreseeable future until enough testing and public health measures can be taken to ensure that we can slowly start emerging from our houses. 

          The past month of staying home has had an interesting effect on time. Every day has started to meld into the next as we lack changes in our locations and interactions with others. “Catching up” with friends via Zoom or Facetime quickly devolves into conversations about the most recent news, a depressing topic, or what shows you’ve binged in the past week. Keeping track of what happened on which day, what day today is, how many days we’ve been at home has become a challenge as we start to feel a little like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, reliving the same patterns over and over again. Our experience of chronological time has been affected, leaving us feeling like time itself might not exist in the haze of this pandemic.

          On top of our loss of chronological time, however, we are continually reminded that our experience is extraordinary, or as you may have heard so frequently in the past few weeks “unprecedented.” Despite the monotony many of us are experiencing in our daily lives, the effects on the economy, our healthcare systems, and communities of color, who face the highest infection and death rates, have led to national and global upheaval. “These are unprecedented times.” Unprecedented is the fancier shorter way of “never before.” And it’s true. These times are like nothing any of us have experienced before. We find ourselves trying to mentally cope with circumstances that seem to only worsen as the days go by with no known end in sight. How do we respond to this crisis? Are we scared? Are we steadfast? Are we questioning? Do we reject it in disbelief or cynicism?  Even when our immediate situation might come to a close, we do not know what the future holds and anticipate that we will not be able to return to business as usual. 

          In today’s gospel the disciples also experience an unprecedented circumstance. Chronologically, not much time has passed between Jesus’ death on Friday and the evening of the first day of the week. They are in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic situation. Fearful, they gather together in hiding after the death of Jesus. Having heard from Mary Magdalene that she saw Jesus at the tomb after his death, they still do not believe that his resurrection could have been possible. As Biblical scholar Joy J. Moore states: “The disciples are fearful. Good news does not erase fear. Good news, incredible news, can ignite hope, but even hope does not eliminate genuine fear. So, there they were in a familiar place desperate with unfamiliar fear.” Locked inside, they encounter Jesus for themselves, first surprised and scared and then amazed at what they had seen. 

          It makes sense that Thomas, who was not with them, reacts the same way the disciples did at hearing Mary’s account of Jesus appearance.  He doesn’t believe because who could? People coming back from the dead isn’t a normal occurrence. After witnessing the brutal way Jesus was treated by the authorities, how could he possibly come back from the dead and speak to the disciples? The realities of the situation overshadow the possibilities for belief in such an unprecedented act.

          Imagine the week between Jesus’ appearance to the disciples and Thomas’ experience – the disciples, transformed and full of hope after their encounter unsuccessfully try to convince Thomas of this new reality, who, for logical reasons cannot accept his friends’ accounts. Thomas wants not only to see, but to touch to fully understand this new reality. He wants concrete assurance in the claims that his friends are making. In a time of crisis, he seeks out tangible confirmation that the reality they claim is true. 

          What happens to Thomas in encountering Jesus is much more than just a recognition of the person he knew in resurrected form as the rest of the disciples have reported. We hear from Thomas’ lips the ultimate recognition of who Jesus truly is: “My Lord and my God.” This moment of recognition is more than just out of amazement, it is a deep seeded understanding of the true nature of Jesus as indwelling with God as Christ. A Kairos moment is revealed through this utterance. Kairos, a Greek word for time, refers to “the right time” whereas chronos refers to “formal time,” or the time we know which flows in a linear fashion. There is a difference between these two words, especially in how they are used the New Testament. Kairos is specifically used to signify times which are appointed by God for a specific purpose. Thomas’ recognition of the true nature of Jesus exposes a fundamental shift in God’s relationship with the world through Christ. It will ignite the possibility of hope in the face of fear and belief in times of uncertainty. The presence of a resurrected Jesus reminds Thomas, the disciples and us of the divine power that undergirds our existence and spurs us to action in the world.

          We too, are in a Kairos moment. Famed protestant theologian, Paul Tillich frames Kairos in this way: “Kairos in its unique and universal sense is, for Christian faith, the appearing of Jesus as the Christ. Kairos in its general and special sense for the philosopher of history is every turning-point in history in which the eternal judges and transforms the temporal.” Tillich then goes on to explain the specific use of Kairos in moments of crisis which open up a connection between what he calls the “unconditional”, an experiential quality of that which is most ultimate, which many may refer to as God, and the conditional, the regular everyday interactions we have. In Tillich we hear an echo of Thomas’ Kairos moment – he asserts the need to see and touch to believe, but in the moment of seeing and touching, experiences a transcendence which enables him to identify the divine nature of Jesus. Tillich argues that we should be open to the Kairos moments which can help us adequately address the challenges of crisis moments in our society in prophetic ways to make change. Kairos moments help us to see the possibility of God’s kindom on Earth.

          Last week, Dean Hill called us to see with “resurrection eyes.” That is, to see the world in the midst of struggle in a new way filled with possibility and hope rather than darkness and death. In experiencing their own Kairos moment, in seeing Jesus resurrected, the disciples too, are seeing with resurrection eyes. While they still may have some fear and uncertainty present within them, they also carry the hope of the good news of resurrection with them. They hold in tension the physical realities of this world, and the world beyond death that Jesus reveals to them through God. We must also be willing to let this moment in time, this moment of Kairos when we experience so much turmoil, to call us to action. 

          Perhaps one of the best rhetorical examples of Kairos was given in April 1967 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in discussing the pressing need to address the Vietnam war. King stated:

          “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

 

          The fierce urgency of now awakens the prophetic voice within us that seeks out justice and righteousness in the world. In many ways, the response to our current crisis is “too late.” We have lost tens of thousands of people to COVID-19 in the United States – more than any other country in the world at this point. Our failure to respond quickly and preemptively to this crisis has created major upheavals in our lives and in our social and economic structures, exposing the cracks present in our systems leading to almost a complete and total collapse. When it becomes necessary for essential workers to risk their health in order to earn a pay check because without it they would not survive, we need to re-evaluate what our priorities are. When those laid off cannot access their state unemployment offices to begin earning benefits because of stressed resources, we need to reevaluate what our priorities are. When those who are marginalized by our society cannot get access to healthcare until it is an absolute emergency, we need to reevaluate what our priorities are. When healthcare workers cannot effectively do their jobs without fear of being infected because they lack proper protective gear which governors have to battle over to gain access to, we need to reevaluate what our priorities are. The pandemic has shown us what can go wrong when we do not adequately prepare for the safety and security of others, when our leadership fails us, when we question the advice of experts in order to soothe our desire for our lives to be uninterrupted.

          While the coronavirus has led us to an immediate public health crisis which we must to respond to or face large-scale sickness and death, climate change is also a looming crisis which, over time, will create global instability on economic, ecological, and social levels. Almost exactly 50 years ago, 20 million Americans gathered all across our country raise the public consciousness about growing environmental crises and the need to address them in order to secure a more sustainable future. Their prophetic voices joined together in response to the affects of widespread pollution on Earth’s systems. Rivers on fire, mass extinctions caused by pesticides, clouds of smog from leaded gasoline, and risks to human health in places like Love Canal, NY demanded a change in how Americans treated the Earth. The first Earth Day was held nationally on April 22, 1970, spurred by the words and actions of Senator Gaylord Nelson, an environmentalist from Wisconsin, who stated “Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.” Earth Day would spur the federal government to establish the Environmental Protection Agency which was tasked with governmental oversight of laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

          Over time, our understanding of the injustices of environmental degradation has grown. Earth Day is now a global recognition of the ways we are all connected and the need to preserve our fragile ecosystems to promote the health of the Earth, and by default, the health of the human race. The challenge with environmental degradation is that it is not always immediately apparent. While fiercely urgent on a historical timeline of human existence, the problems of the future seem too far off to address in the present moment. In 1970, people called for drastic changes to the ways we consumed with the thought of protecting the Earth for future generations. 

          The resulting regulations implemented created conditions that pushed off negative consequences and many skeptics thought that the initial concern was an overreaction. But that that’s the thing with prevention: if it works, the negative outcomes that are forecasted will not arise because we acted expediently to address them. The old adage is true “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Climate change still looms as a force that could continue to upend our “normal” lives. Flooding, droughts, rising sea levels, and increases in the spread of new viruses, including those which cause pandemics, will all result from climate change in the coming years. In fact, scientists have been predicting for years that pandemics would be a consequence of climate change. We cannot say we were not warned about these devastating events when they happen.

          The pandemic crisis we face now is a wake-up call. It is a Kairos moment when we can accept the presence of God’s kindom on Earth in following our call to be good neighbors, stewards, and seekers of justice. We can pretend that climate change and new illnesses will not affect us, but the reality is that they all will. We live in a closed system. We are all connected. Ignoring the advisement of scientists and scholars will not make our future problems go away. Refusing to see or hear what happens to others as a means of self-preservation ultimately creates chaos for all. We have the opportunity to seek out new ways to support one another by creating lasting, systemic change that ensures we all have access to healthcare, everyone can earn a living wage, and we can care for the Earth which ultimately cares for us. We cannot go back to “normal” when this is over. We must be changed by this Kairos moment. What we do now makes a difference in what the future will hold. Faith is the foundation of this. Our belief in that which is not yet seen is what can be. The right time is now.

          Amen.

Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

Sunday
January 12

Right Relationship

By Marsh Chapel

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Isaiah 42:1-9

Matthew 3:13-17

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Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Good morning! Welcome to a new year, a new decade, a time that years ago seemed so far off in the future – 2020. We’re solidly into this new year now, having finished our holiday festivities and returned to our “regular” lives of work and school (although our students still have one more week of break to enjoy). We’re back to early morning risings, rush-hour commutes, and the horizon of what this new year will have in store for us individually, in our local and national communities, and the world.

Like some of you, I was fortunate enough to spend my holiday break with my family. Christmas and New Year’s fell on Wednesdays this year, extending my time with them just a little bit longer than normal and allowing for some deep rest and relaxation. It also meant that I was treated to my mom’s cooking and baking. Baking is a big part of my family’s Christmas celebrations. My mom mixes her fruitcake batter sometime in November every year so that it can be steamed and then wrapped in sherry-soaked cheesecloth and aluminum foil, stored in the large black lobster pot in our basement until it is appropriately aged and ready to be distributed to family, friends, and neighbors at Christmastime. I know what you’re thinking – fruitcake is the ultimate Christmas-time gift punchline, but people LOVE my mom’s fruitcake. In addition to fruitcake there’s a day of baking pumpkin bread, and then, of course, baking Christmas cookies: Sugar jumbles, peanut butter Hershey’s kiss, mincemeat (my dad’s favorite), peanut butter, and the old standard, chocolate chip.

All of this baking in my youth has led to my own love of baking as an adult. But there’s something about the way my mom makes things that I still haven’t quite been able to capture. Maybe it’s because the recipes I have inherited from her aren’t actually the recipes she uses. For example, the recipe I have for pumpkin bread, which she copied from her own recipe card, is incorrect. I only found this out at Christmas this year. Number one – she doesn’t use nutmeg. Even though it’s in the recipe. Only cinnamon will do. Number two – the recipe calls for 3 cups of sugar…the recipe yields six loaves, so it’s not as sugary as you’re thinking. But my mom only uses one cup of sugar. Just one. It doesn’t say that anywhere in the recipe that I have. Granted the pumpkin bread I made still came out just fine, even with using nutmeg and the 3 cups of sugar, but it didn’t taste like I how I remembered. Those little tweaks and shifts in family recipes often yield better results, but we only find them out by either making mistakes or through direct communication from the recipe owner. There are many other recipes I could list where my mom instructs to add things like flour “until it’s enough” – actions you can only learn through practiced trial and error. The recipe is a guideline, but not the rule of how to get things just right. Sometimes, it’s through relationship with another that we really find out the “right” way to do something.

Many of us struggle with wanting to get things “right.” People seek a plan, direction, a recipe if you will for finding the best way to create the most fulfilling life, whatever that might mean for them individually. We compare ourselves to others and feel less accomplished or like we don’t know which path to take sometimes. Wouldn’t it be great to have a recipe, or a set of instructions that can help us learn what to do when aspects of our lives don’t turn out the way we expected? How can we find those necessary edits or tricks that can help us accomplish the things we need to do?

There’s a plethora of decisions and actions that may worry us today. Some of them are personal, like how to live a healthy, generous, and loving life. Many are beyond our personal control, however. We see our communities divided by ideologies and bigotry. We witness global powers threatening and, in some cases, executing attacks on other countries, leaving civilians injured or killed and provoking fear, anxiety, and hatred. Natural disasters, such as the wildfires in Australia and the compounding earthquakes in Puerto Rico, some on scales we’ve never witnessed before, destroy homes, habitats, take lives, and make recovery seem improbable. Clearly these kinds of problems have no set out guides for response – but we have ethical insights from our religious tradition that can help to guide us in times of trouble such as these. Combined with our lived experience and our relationships with others, we learn how best to live out our Christian calling in the world, sometimes making mistakes, but hopefully moving toward sharing love and establishing justice.

Prophetic language is an important part of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The prophets found in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament as many Christians refer to it, perform a variety of functions for the Israelite community. Prophets have the power to see and name what is happening presently while at the same time bringing attention to the possibilities of what could be. They operate at multiple levels within the community: as an ethical guide, a theological interpreter, a political critic, and an advocate for social welfare. The prophetic voice changes as the community and its circumstances change. When the people or leaders are not living into the will of God, prophets bring harsh warnings of potential outcomes and remind them of the important commitment they’ve established with God through their covenantal relationship. When the community is in disarray, prophets remind the people of their ethical responsibilities to one another and to God. Prophets can also challenge the status quo to bring about necessary change in the hearts and minds of leaders and the people, sometimes challenging temporal authority in order to seek true divinely-inspired justice for the community. The prophetic voice carries the nuances of behavior that go beyond the regular teachings and beliefs found in sacred texts and practices, connecting the abstract ideals of God’s will to direct actions in particular contexts. It provides the guidance similar to notes scribbled in the margins of a long established recipe.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, we are confronted with Deutero-Isaiah transmitting the words of God to the Israelites who are living in a time of exile. Although the language used initially is the singular “he”, God is speaking to the community of Israel as a whole. They, collectively, are “the servant.” The Babylonians have just captured Judah and destroyed the temple in this context, leaving the Israelites without a home and with a feeling of hopelessness. The Israelites, reasonably, could have been so anguished and angry about their exile that they would not trust in God. They could have disbanded as a community and lost trust in one another. They could have turned on other communities and harmed them in their frustration. But instead, the voice of God through the prophet reminds them of their right relationship with God and others. What is appropriate is not to take out frustration and anger on others, but to be a light to the nations of the world, a community established in justice and righteousness. A community that leads by not harming those who are oppressed, but who strives to cease such oppression from existing. Establishing a community that does not see their defeat in Judah as an end, but as the possibility of new beginning.

In today’s Gospel reading, the concept of what is “right” or appropriate comes to us in a different way. Jesus approaches John to be baptized by him. John doesn’t understand this request. To him, Jesus has more authority. Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus knows for what has to take place in his life that he must be baptized by John, for it will “fulfill all righteousness”. It is the “right” way to do this. The right execution of being in relationship with one another for Jesus is to not assert his authority by becoming the one who baptizes, but in modeling that through baptism, God calls us in to holy relationship. John’s calling in the world is to be a baptizer. It is his vocation. For Jesus to disregard John’s calling in the world, particularly as a prophet foretelling Jesus’ own arrival, would go against God’s will. In the servant-relationship that is formed by Jesus’ presence, he reverses that structure of authority. The scene of Jesus’ baptism is an indication of what his ministry will look like. He goes to the wilderness, to the literal margins of society, and is baptized because it is the right action to take.

We also know John’s baptism of Jesus is right because the Holy Spirit appears and the voice of God states that Jesus is God’s beloved, with whom God is well pleased. Matthew echoes the introduction of of Isaiah 42, connecting the mission of the beloved servant with Jesus’ ministry in the world. John and Jesus’ relationship is one that establishes the correct order of events, but the presence of God in three forms creates yet another relationship which we echo in our own baptism. We enter into a relational community – with God of course, but also with those who follow Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is claimed by God, just as we are claimed by God through our own baptism. God chooses us to be a part of the large family found through Christ. We are all siblings together sharing in the love and care exemplified by Jesus and sustained in us through the Holy Spirit. Jesus instructs us through his ministry and teaching what God’s will is to look like in the world and through following that will, we create a more just society.

In our baptism, we take on the call to fulfill all righteousness. Part of our relationship with the Divine is to act faithfully in alignment with that which God calls us to. While divine will is not always easy to discern – we don’t have doves descending or the voice of God proclaiming us to others – we have basic tenets which we know are central to our beliefs. Jesus’ ministry and death teaches us how God’s will can be lived out. Loving our neighbor and our enemy. Seeking justice for those who are voiceless, poor, oppressed, or imprisoned. Coming together to in community to worship and share our lives with one another. Practicing forgiveness against those who have wronged us. While we may know these ideas to be central to our identity as Christians, complex social/political/ethical situations can cause us to question what exactly is the right way to go about living out our faith.

Earlier this week I was seated at table with religious professionals from around the Boston area. We all work on college or university campuses and help students navigate their spiritual journeys, asking big questions, facing the realities of today with their personal histories and identities. While the meeting convened was to discuss an inter-collegiate interfaith experience, we ended up discussing the overall climate on our campuses and the best ways in which we could support our students in. The college campus is a microcosm of the outside world. It may not necessarily reflect all of the challenges of the world completely, but in some cases it amplifies conversations that only simmer slowly underneath the cultural milieu of the rest of the country or world. In a time like ours, on the precipice of an election, my colleagues and I worried if rhetoric would become more vitriolic than it has already been and how we would weather possible challenges in our communities this year. With a rise in anti-Semitic acts, bigoted violence against people of color, assertions of political leaders as demigods, and the continued exclusion of LGBTQ people from religious leadership, students have plenty of questions about how to best navigate confrontational situations, or whether to engage in them at all.

We ended up pausing our meeting to hold a 45-minute discussion about ally-ship and what that means for us as administrators, as people of faith, as religious leaders, and as those who are in positions of power in comparison to those experiencing oppression. What does it mean to bring together people who share opposing views? When is it a healthy way of learning and listening, and when is it unhealthy and abusive? When do we encourage students to have conversation even if they don’t agree, and when is it okay for them to not participate in those conversations? How do we execute this kind of work in a way that is supportive, truthful, and generous while still challenging that which is hateful and stands in opposition to our beliefs? How can we encourage our students to take part in this work, and when is it time for us to step in? We want to seek justice for our students, but we also don’t want to interfere in conversations that might not be our places to fight.

What we discovered in our discussion was that our need to be in right relationship within these situations depended upon us identifying who we are – the many identities we hold – and knowing when our voices were needed to amplify those who are facing oppression. As one of my colleagues put it, we need to be hearing in a new way those who are hurting and focusing on how our relationships matter. It is through this self-reflection that we can see the ways in which our society may privilege certain aspects about our existence that prevents us from fulling understanding the harm experienced by others. For Christians, we can rest in the assurance that we are baptized in the name of the Triune God, that God bestows grace upon us no matter how difficult the decisions we must make and the wrong turns or stumbles we may encounter. We must claim our Christian identity in the face of evil and boldly state, “I am baptized!” as Lutheran pastor and speaker Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us in her article, “How to Say Defiantly, ‘I am Baptized!”’.

The longer I try to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world the more I am convinced despite my proclivity to cynicism that there are indeed forces that seek to defy God. And nowhere are we more prone to encroaching darkness than when we are stepping into the light. If you have ever experienced sudden discouragement in the midst of healthy decisions, or if there is a toxic thought that will always send you spiraling down, or if there is a particular temptation that is your weakness then I make the following suggestion: take a note from Martin Luther’s playbook and defiantly shout back at this darkness “I am Baptized” not I was, but I am baptized. [1]

I would add that it will also benefit us to be open to listening to those harmed and naming ways that we can be in right relationship with them while also being in right relationship with God. That is what seeking justice is all about. While God gives us the ingredients necessary to live in alignment with Divine will, sometimes we need additional instructions that come from observing our context and listening to those set at the margins of society, or listening to those with no voice at all.

Our desire to live into the righteousness and justice that God sets as a standard for those called to him is echoed throughout the history of Christianity. Figuring out our ethical responsibilities is a challenge, but we are guided by those who came before us and those who are around us now. Martin Luther, in his treatise on the Two Kinds of Righteousness reminds us what our commitment to seeking justice and righteousness means for those who follow Christ in Baptism:

“For you are powerful, not that you may make the weak weaker by oppression, but that you may make them powerful by raising them up and defending them. You are wise, not in order to laugh at the foolish and thereby make them more foolish, but that you may undertake to teach them as you yourself wish to be taught. You are righteous that you may vindicate and pardon the unrighteous, not that you may only condemn, disparage, judge and punish. For this is Christ’s example for us…”[2]

Being in right relationship with one another causes us to change how we see the world. Our willingness to hear the Gospel enables us to welcome and include those who feel excluded, to console those who are suffering, and to seek justice for those who face oppression. It opens our eyes to possibility. Our ability to listen to those who suffer and pay attention to the world around us gives us indications of the best ways to apply the Gospel in the world. We see what is, but also what can be in a deeply broken world.

Amen.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “How to Say Defiantly, ‘I am Baptized!”’, Sojourners, January 20, 2011, https://sojo.net/articles/how-say-defiantly-i-am-baptized

[2] Martin Luther, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 162.

Sunday
October 6

Living Faith

By Marsh Chapel

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2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

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Faith and Fear

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” They do so emphatically. Enthusiastically. Or perhaps fearfully. At the very least, we know the translators ended this statement with an exclamation point: “Increase our faith!”

In order to understand why the apostles would make such a demand, it’s important to understand the context of this scripture passage. The lectionary lets us down a bit because it starts this scene in media res, in the middle of the action. Jesus has already begun addressing the apostles when this week’s reading from Luke starts. Immediately before their request for more faith, Jesus tells the disciples that they must not become stumbling blocks for others and forgive those who sin against them if they are repentant, even if those people repeatedly sin against them. The disciples draw a logical conclusion: if they are to be so forgiving, so full of love, then they must also have more faith. They turn to Jesus and say, “Increase our faith!”

The disciples want to do better. They want to be Jesus’ followers in the best way possible. To them, if only they could increase their faith, they would be able to follow Jesus’ commands. They could heal more people. They could evangelize more effectively. They could care more, love more, and forgive more. They don’t think that their faith is adequate to meet such demands. Whomever can forgive and forgive and forgive again must be someone who is brimming with faith.

But Jesus points out to the apostles that it isn’t a specific amount of faith that makes faithful actions possible. Faith the size of a mustard seed – a very tiny amount of faith – has the ability to do miraculous things. It can uproot a mulberry tree and plant it in the ocean. Mulberry trees infamously have very intricate and complex root systems, making them difficult to move. Also Jesus says that the bush will be planted in the sea. Not thrown into the sea, but planted, where one would assume, it would continue to grow. So, not only would a mustard-seed sized faith allow for the movement of something that seems immoveable, but also its flourishing in a new place. This mustard seed-sized faith is very powerful.

We all have moments when we think our faith can’t be enough. Moments when we are faced with a task, an interaction, some “thing” that we don’t think we can do. Trust me, after years of slogging through academic work for a PhD, there were plenty of moments when I threw up my hands and said “I can’t do it!” We tell ourselves and others that if only we had more time, more experience, more confidence, we could do what is asked of us. Maybe we find ourselves in a place of fear about what is to come or what we don’t know. We think ourselves incapable of finding the wherewithal to face an uncertain future or outcome.  Doubt and fear are the opposite of faith. Fear prevents us from moving forward. Fear tells us that we’re not good enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re incapable.

The point that Jesus makes is that it is not the size of one’s faith that matters but how and whether it is used properly. One’s faith is not a private matter. Faith in God is the foundation for all of our interactions in the world. Faith is relational. Faith is a commitment. Faith requires trust and love. Faith that only resides within a person as a private means of belief in God, but that does not spur them to action, is like having no faith at all. Martin Luther reminds us that while we are justified by faith alone, sola fide, faith is never alone in practice. It must be accompanied by works of love. We must have an active, living faith if we are to follow Jesus. The task of the disciples and for all of us is to allow our faith to overcome our fears in doing what we need to do in the world.
Sometimes, also, it’s that our faith requires us to do things that we don’t want to do. We resist those things that feel too difficult. We fail to speak up in unjust situations. We avoid interaction with those with whom we disagree. We refuse to forgive because we don’t think the other party is worthy of forgiveness. We live in a time when divisions run deep and instead of listening and trying to understand one another, we rush to judge or dismiss on the basis of who we perceive people to be. Our tendencies toward self-preservation and egoism prevent us from experiencing the empathy needed to genuinely share our faith with others.

Jesus cautions against doing works in anticipation of reward with his set of sentences in this reading, however. The actions we do through faith are what is expected of us. We should not anticipate special rewards for doing what we are called to be and do in the world. Jesus’ imagery is jolting for us who live in a context which still suffers the consequences of a history of slavery. To us, one person being enslaved to another is abhorrent. In Jesus’ context, this was not the case. The point that Jesus makes in this description of the slave and master relationship is that we should not expect special rewards or treatments for the things that we are expected to do. The language may be difficult for us to hear, especially depicted in the slave/master relationship, but it is important to recognize that the things we do in faith are things that we ought to do. We may not be uprooting mulberry trees with our commands, but our faith guides every interaction we have on a daily basis.

World Communion Sunday and Our Faith

Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. In this yearly liturgical tradition we recall how we are all joined together in the Body of Christ no matter our denominations, our backgrounds and cultures, our places of origin. We join together in sharing Holy communion. The act of communion, of eating and drinking, reminds us of our relationships with the Holy Trinity and the world around us.

This week, preeminent Christian Social Ethicist, theologian, and church historian, Dr. Gary Dorrien gave the Lowell lecture at BU’s school of theology. Dorrien described how the field of Social Ethics within the Christian tradition did not exist prior to the late 19th, early 20th century. Social ethicists asserted that Christians must consider the social structures that create sin in the world and look for communal solutions to such problems. The Industrial Revolution created new challenges including addressing factory workers’ wellbeing and safety, child labor, and urban poverty. The realities of Jim Crow laws, segregation, and forced migration to reservations created an unjust society in which those who were perceived as an “other” conflicted with the Christian vision of a world filled with justice and righteousness.

Focusing on the Black and White Social Gospel movements of the early 20th century, Dorrien also made mention of the growth of the ecumenical movement during this time period. Organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the Federal Council of Churches, which would later become the National Council of Churches, formed to provide unified statements aimed at shifting corrupt practices by corporations and building social welfare for all people. One thing that Dorrien pointed out in his presentation is that instead of representatives from different denominations coming together to discuss theological ideas, such as the nature of God or the meaning behind the sacraments, they instead focused on how the Christian faith could actively address problems within societies. The living faith of Christians brought them together to see past theological differences in the interest of assisting those in need. Joining together to create statements and movements for better pay, better working conditions, immigration reform, and racial justice was a unifying force that then lead to deeper understanding between denominations. The result is that many of our Mainline Protestant Denominations in the US now share full communion with one another, allowing for leadership, worship, and cooperation across theological differences.

World Communion Sunday also developed out of the burgeoning ecumenical movements of the 20th century. Today, our relationships with the global community take a much different form than they did in 1933 when the first World Communion Sunday was held. We are more connected to our global neighbors. It is easier now to learn about and observe how people around the world live, work, and experience the world. And yet, we still encounter some of the same challenges that the world experienced in 1933. Political rhetoric that alienates us from one another, the rise of nationalism throughout the world, and corruption and monopolization within corporations seem all too familiar for those of us familiar with world history. Add on to those issues deteriorating ecosystems, massive global economic inequality, and increasing tensions between nations and it might feel like our faith can do very little to address all of the challenges of the present moment.

On a day like today, however, it is important for us to take a moment to reflect on what our faith requires of us. In the reading from Second Timothy, we hear the letter writer, identified as Paul, encouraging Timothy to stay committed to his faith despite the challenges he might face. The faith Timothy shares with his mother and grandmother is “not a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” We must also heed these words. While the global challenges we face today may seem insurmountable, our faith lived out through our actions of love grounded in Christ can lead us to create change and understanding in our world.

I have hope despite the fact that there are so many challenges facing us today. Maybe it’s because I get to encounter future leaders from all over the world on a regular basis. The next generation who is entering into their young adulthood now see the mistakes of the past and feel energized to address those problems. If you need proof of this, look no further than Nobel Peace prize winner, Malala, who fights for equal access to education regardless of gender,  or climate activist Greta Thunberg, who addressed the United Nations in an impassioned speech two weeks ago; Dreamer activists who continue to fight for immigration reform; or the students of Parkland, FL who organized the March for our Lives gun reform activism that increased voter registration and turnout for the last election. It’s important that many of these voices are from people under the age of 25. Their voices carry hopes for the future of our country and the world in which there is more justice and less violence, more care and less destruction, more acceptance and less ignorance. This week, Marsh Chapel will host a conversation regarding LGBTQ affirmation in the Korean church entitled “God Loves Me. Period. A talk on Queerness, Koreaness, and Church.” This is just one example in our midst of the next generation of the church seeking to affirm the dignity and wellbeing of all people. Moving forward, the church must also become more receptive to differences, finding opportunities to engage people of different faiths to create a just and sustainable world.

United Methodist Elder, artist, and author Jan Richardson offers a reflection for World Communion Sunday that reminds us of the gifts of coming together in community. On her website, The Painted Prayerbook, her poem “And the Table Will Be Wide” accompanies her artwork entitled “The Best Supper.” A play on words of the Last Supper, the image is of a circular table from above with people from all nationalities (and one cat!) sharing a meal together. In the center of the table are loaves of bread, representing different types found around the world. Some of the people depicted hold glasses of wine high, others embrace their neighbors. Listen now to Richardson’s words in “And the Table Will be Wide”:

And the table

will be wide.

And the welcome

will be wide.

And the arms

will open wide

to gather us in.

And our hearts

will open wide

to receive.

And we will come

as children who trust

there is enough.

And we will come

unhindered and free.

And our aching

will be met

with bread.

And our sorrow

will be met

with wine.

And we will open our hands

to the feast

without shame.

And we will turn

toward each other

without fear.

And we will give up

our appetite

for despair.

And we will taste

and know

of delight.

And we will become bread

for a hungering world.

And we will become drink

for those who thirst.

And the blessed

will become the blessing.

And everywhere

will be the feast.[1]

At God’s Holy table we all are welcome, no matter where we come from. At God’s Holy table, there is enough to feed our spiritual needs. At God’s Holy table, we are able to free ourselves from those things that cause fear and trust in the power of the Divine that permeates all. At God’s Holy table we are reminded of the promises of Jesus and our commitments to enact our faith in the world. At God’s Holy table our mustard seed faith germinates. Amen.

-Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

 


[1] AND THE TABLE WILL BE WIDE, Jan Richardson, https://paintedprayerbook.com/2012/09/30/and-the-table-will-be-wide/.

 

Sunday
July 14

Bearing Fruit

By Marsh Chapel

 Click here to hear the full service

Luke 10:25-37

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Bearing Fruit

Good morning! It’s good to be back with all of you here at Marsh Chapel. Summer is here and I am so glad. For me, summer means a slower pace, a time to relax and recharge. At a place like BU, the school year can be hectic, so by the time we hit June and July, it’s wonderful to have a moment to catch our breath, take stock of the previous academic year, and prepare for what the next year will offer.

Summer is also a time for travel and new experiences. Some of us are fortunate enough to have the means to take vacations from our regular lives and see new places or at least take a break from our places of work for a little while. But travel brings its own set of challenges – air travel requires you to be at the airport hours before your departure, remembering to take all of the liquids out of your carry-on bag before going through screening, lines after lines after lines of people all anxious to get their travel started in the most expedient way possible. This week, I read an article that confirmed what many of us already observe – air travel affects us emotionally and physically. Cabin pressures can cause some strange changes, like affecting our sense of taste, leading more people to crave or enjoy tomato juice on a plane than they do on the ground. The pressure inside cabins can also affect our mood – we can become more anxious, less friendly, and experience more tension because of decreased oxygen levels. Add on to that the stress of traveling to new places, individual fears and anxieties around travel, the cost of travel and/or vacations, and in some cases, broken forms of transportation and communication that can lead to frustration and all out despair when it comes to getting to where we need to go. It’s no wonder so many people dread the “getting there” part of traveling. 

For two weeks in the last month I was lucky enough to travel to Germany. While I had wonderful experiences during my time in Germany – getting to meet new people, experience the culture of my heritage, and learning new and interesting facts about Luther’s life and times- it was during the not so great experiences that I came to appreciate the kindness and compassion of others. Here’s what happened: I missed my train. Not because I was late; not because I read the schedule wrong; not because I couldn’t get a ticket. No, I missed my train because it came early An hour early. Now, I know you’re saying to yourself: “how is that possible?” Good question. Because in Germany, when there is construction, the trains come early. This is what I learned. 

After missing my train, the rest of my day was spent relying on the kindness of strangers. The woman at the information desk in the Wittenberg train station tried her best to explain to me in a mixture of German and English that even though I missed my train because it came early, I could get on the next train, but that I wouldn’t have an assigned seat. Not understanding that I could still ride on the train without a seat, I panicked thinking I would be spending another unplanned night in Wittenberg. The woman at the desk was trying so hard to help me, even going as far to type into google translate for me, but the translation was incomplete, and I still wasn’t understanding that I could still travel. Fortunately, the woman was willing to speak on the phone with my German friend in Munich, whom I was travelling to see, and he was able to clarify that I could still get on the next train even though I didn’t have a seat assigned.

Once on the train, I realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I had a huge bag and struggled to get it on the train. Fortunately, a man standing near the door grabbed one end and helped me thrust it up. I also thought finding a space to settle in would be easy. I was wrong. The space in between the main cars that I entered was already occupied by people who were sitting, standing, and generally looking uncomfortable as the train sped along. I stood awkwardly just inside the doorway trying to decide what the best course of action might be. A man across the way caught my eye and smiled, so I made my way over to him. He started speaking to me in German commenting on how full the train was. I then explained that I had already missed my earlier train and that I wasn’t looking forward to standing for the rest of my 4-hour train ride to Munich, especially since I was still tending to a sprained ankle. Without hesitation, he immediately sprung to action and grabbed a porter, explaining to her that I needed to find a seat because I was injured. She replied that there was room in the dining car and instructed me that it was 3 cars from where we were. The man directed me where I needed to go and wished me luck with the rest of my trip as I set off lugging my bag to the dining car. Thinking I was all set after finding a place to settle in, we stopped in Leipzig to let passengers off. An announcement came over the PA system for the train – it wasn’t a regular announcement that was translated into English as the other announcements had been – it was only in German. A chorus of groans erupted around me and people began to look annoyed. I sat for a few minutes thinking of who I could ask for assistance, as I had no idea what was going on. Seated across from me were two German women who had been in conversation since I got on the train. I tentatively asked them if they spoke English and they said “Oh yes!” and then proceeded to explain to me that our train would be delayed an hour and 50 minutes because of a fire near the tracks we were supposed to take. They welcomed me to traveling on the Deutsche Bahn, which they said was “always an adventure.” An adventure indeed. They continued to update me as we sat waiting for more announcements, ending with at least some good news that the conductors had found an alternative route that would only make us a half hour late to Munich. I made it to Munich 5 hours later than I was originally scheduled, and was never so glad for a travel day to end.

I tell you this story not because I’m seeking your pity, but to highlight the care I received from others. Granted, this was not a life and death situation, like that of the Good Samaritan story we heard in the Gospel today, but my day would have been a lot worse had it not been for the kindness of strangers who were willing to help me out when I needed it. I also needed to be willing to accept the help of others in order for the story to end well. Being receptive to help can sometimes be half the battle. We’re all familiar with the age-old trope of the stubborn person who refuses to ask for directions when they are very clearly lost. How many times in our lives are we too stubborn or unwilling to let others help us? Why do we find it difficult to accept help, or seek it out?

Getting help from others doesn’t mean we are weak. It doesn’t mean we’re incapable. It doesn’t mean we’re less than. It means we’re human. We are all here in this one crazy and too short life on Earth together. Being willing to accept help in whatever form it may take – a listening ear, a ride, or physical assistance – requires a bit of humility on our part as well as openness. 

Sometimes when we reflect on the story of the good Samaritan we are drawn to the position of the Samaritan in the story. After all, Jesus uses this as an example to demonstrate to the lawyer questioning him what love of neighbor really entails – seeing the humanity in all who need help, regardless of who they are. Another interpretation of this story by early commentators exists, however, in which humanity is not represented by the Good Samaritan, but rather Christ fills that role. Humanity is the man in the ditch. This depiction emphasizes the salvific quality of Christ; Christ is the unexpected healer and savior of all who helps us out of the ditch. The inn and innkeeper are then the church which cares for and supports us as we recover from our injuries, which in this case would be the injuries to our soul, the sin that has taken ahold of us. By holding these two interpretations in tension with one another, we can understand our role as both needing to accept the love of God as well as express that love to others by showing compassion to those we meet along the way. We must be able to see ourselves as both the person in the ditch and the Good Samaritan, as compassion is built on empathy.

In his theology of justification by faith, Martin Luther emphasized a dualistic understanding of God’s righteousness – that God provides an outside righteousness to all Christians, something that they do not have to do anything to earn. Luther calls this “alien righteousness.” Recognition of the external righteousness granted to us becomes more apparent as we acknowledge the presence of God in our lives. Our faith in God reinforces our knowledge and acceptance of this alien righteousness that we have no control over, but of which we can be made aware and incorporate into our understanding of the world around us. When we do things like come together in worship, hear or read the scriptures, or connect with others in community, we are reminded of the grace offered to us by God through Christ.

The other form of righteousness Luther describes is proper righteousness. These are the expressions of Christian love that people share with one another. Luther is quick to point out that this proper righteousness relies on the presence of alien righteousness in order to be effective. God’s love and care for us allows us to express the same love and care to others. It is in this way that we bear the fruit of the spirit which is spoken of in the epistle to the Colossians that we heard today. You’ll note that in this letter by Paul (or someone who writes as Paul) that he also emphasizes to the community in Colossae that it is the hope in God that they have found through hearing the Gospel that will cause them to bear the fruit of good works in the world. Our ability to be in service to others is informed by our ability to accept God’s love in the first place.

Luther’s describes the relationship between these forms of righteousness through the metaphor of a tree and the kind of fruit it bears in his treatise “On the Freedom of a Christian:”

It is clear that the fruits do not bear the tree and that the tree does not grow on the fruits, also that, on the contrary, the trees bear the fruits and the fruits grow on the trees. As it is necessary, therefore, that the trees exist before their fruits and the fruits do not make trees either good or bad, but rather as the trees are, so are the fruits they bear; so a man must first be good or wicked before he does a good or wicked work, and his works do not make him good or wicked, but he himself makes his works either good or wicked. 

A tree must have good nutrition, proper sunlight, proper minerals in order to flourish and produce good fruit. A tree that does not have these foundational elements will not produce good fruit, if any fruit at all. The person then, must be grounded in the faith and knowledge of God’s grace in order to produce good fruits and works in the world. To expect the fruit to be good without the rootedness in the soil of the grace of God is to not understand the ways in which God’s grace is given freely to all.

We all know that living in community is a challenge. We are each individuals with our own hopes, needs, desires, and motives. Sometimes those hopes and needs align with those of our neighbors; that makes our community an easy place to live in because we agree on seeking out an existence that has a similar world view. More than likely, however, our perspectives will clash with others, leading to disagreement, and in some cases a distrust or even disdain of our neighbor. Sometimes those we think we can trust turn out to not be trustworthy at all, causing us harm instead of love and care.

The question of “who is my neighbor?” still haunts us today. We all fail to see our neighbors for who they are; other human beings who need the care and compassion we also need to survive and thrive in our lives. We may allow things like economic differences, differences in skin color or nationality, or differences in gender shape who we view as our neighbor. Jesus reminds us that those things cannot matter if we are truly seeking to love our neighbor in the way that God commands. 

We must be willing to both accept the compassion of others as well as express that compassion if we are to join together in community. Recently it seems as though much of the public discourse in our communities lacks an emphasis on morality. In an effort to seem “balanced” people draw false equivalencies over issues in our country, failing to acknowledge how certain actions are morally wrong. For example, caging children in detention centers without adequate sanitation and care dehumanizes them and demonstrates a definite problem with the moral compass of our country. If we cannot have compassion for others based on the fact that they too are human, they too are God’s children, they too deserve to be taken care of, then we fail to bear good fruit. If we continue to allow for the degradation of our Earth at the expense of those who are most vulnerable, then we fail to bear good fruit. If we become accustomed to mass shootings and the countless lives lost to gun violence in our country without an adequate response of horror and action, then we fail to bear good fruit.  

I implore you to remember where your roots lie so that you may come to bear good fruit. Your roots lie in the love of God that surpasses all understanding, whose grace is bestowed on us as a free gift that we can choose to employ or not. Let us accept that gift of love and live out our commandment to share that love with others. We are called to be servants and love to our neighbors. Our neighbors are individuals who we encounter every day, but are also those who we may never meet and may only ever understand as an abstracted idea. Our service to others includes seeking justice and righteousness for all, no matter who they are. 

At the end of each worship service, we typically end with a benediction and a response. The benediction offers a blessing to the community gathered and the sending a reminder of that which we are to take with us as we leave worship. Here we typically use “God be in my head” as our sending response.  In my tradition, the service typically ends with the leader dismissing the congregation with the words “Go in peace; serve the Lord” and the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” So to prepare you for the end of the service, I will state the benediction ending with this dismissal. Let’s practice… “Go in peace, serve the Lord.” “Thanks be to God.” And as you hear and respond to these words, take to heart what the words mean in light of bearing fruit in the world – having been nourished by the words, music, and community of this service today, take them with you to serve and love your neighbor.

Amen.

Dr. Jessica A. H. Chicka

Sunday
April 28

“Divine Presence”

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to hear the full service

Revelation 1:4-8

John 20:19-31

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Good morning! Happy Eastertide! Happy Earth Day! There are so many things to be thankful for this morning. Some of us are nearing the end of another academic year, some of us are finishing degrees, and some of us are just happy that life appears to be returning to Boston – trees are sprouting new leaves, flowers are in bloom, and you can hear birds singing in the early morning hours. I’m happy for all of these reasons. Happy for my students that they have succeeded academically through another semester, happy for those who finally see a light at the end of the tunnel that is accomplishing a graduate or undergraduate degree, happy that we have a constant reminder that new life and growth is possible. Plus, we’ve entered into the 50 days of Eastertide, a time when we rejoice in the reality of resurrection – of finding hope when there appears to be no hope left.

Today’s gospel tells us the familiar story of Christ appearing to the disciples after his resurrection. The disciples were frightened, having just lost their teacher and friend via state execution, probably wondering if the same fate would await them as his followers. Even though Jesus indicated that he would return, the disciples did not think it was a possibility. They didn’t believe the prophecies that Jesus proclaimed during his life which prepared the way for his return. So, when he appeared before them in a locked room, they of course were unsure how to process the information in front of them. But after Jesus appears to them, they tell Thomas, who happened to be away that evening. Thomas, like the others, cannot believe that Jesus could be back. He knows that Jesus died and for the others to claim that he was alive again does not make any sense. Jesus still appears to Thomas, who insists on physically touching the wounds of Christ to fully accept that he had, in fact, returned to life after death. Jesus appears and acquiesces to Thomas’ need for physical confirmation, but cautions that those who have faith in the reality of the divine presence of Christ in the world after his death are especially blessed. Should we criticize Thomas for his insistence on getting to see what the other disciples also saw the week previous? I don’t think so – Thomas is trying to wrap his head around an impossible possibility. The only thing that will change his mind is the assurance of divine presence.

This past Monday was Earth Day. Maybe you were extra aware of this because of local initiatives to remind you to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Or maybe you celebrated Arbor Day this past Friday by planting a tree. Here at the chapel, we hosted over 20 BU students and staff to make their own tiny terrariums to help green their desks, dorm rooms, or apartments. Earth Day is our yearly reminder to be more in tune with the state of our home. It’s like a state of the union for the planet. A time when we can choose to tune in and analyze the ways we’ve contributed to healing the Earth and in what ways we could be doing better. I recognize that not everyone has the same frame of mind when it comes to the importance of Earth Day – I am particularly attuned as someone who studies and analyzes environmental problems and the ways in which our Christian faith can guide our care and concern for the Earth.

At the beginning of this month, I attended an eco-symposium which brought together scholars and activists in the field of ecological justice and environmental sustainability to think about the ways that we can collaborate with one another to create change and the roles that faith can play in making that change. It was a great opportunity to meet people from a variety of backgrounds and experiences to share the ways that they are incorporating concern for the Earth into teaching, preaching, and civic engagement at both local and global scales. One of the presenters was the Dean of the Pardee School of Global Studies here at BU, Dr. Adil Najam. Dr. Najam co-authored the Third and Fourth Assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the guiding document for scientists and other environmental policy advocates on the issues of climate change. Dr. Najam made an excellent point in his presentation to us. If you were to look at the Earth as an outsider like you would assess a country, based on overall economics, health, and sustainability, our planet would not seem like a very good place to live. In fact, Dr. Najam referred to the Earth as “Third World planet.” A large portion of our population is impoverished, many face illnesses and even death on a daily basis, and the overall health and sustainability of our planet is poor and decreasing each day. Dr. Najam called our present time an “Age of Adaptation” in which we must address several failures that have led us to our current status – failure of wisdom about scientific consensus, failure to negotiate the necessary responses and responsibility for contributions to climate change, failure of vulnerability between those who are affected and those who cause problems, and a failure of morality in not fully understanding the ethical implications of the complex environmental, political, social, and economic factors at play.[1] He advocated that there needs to be massive overhauls in how we understand our relationships to one another as neighbors living on the same planet, and also how we view our relationship with the Earth.

My belief in the centrality of Christian faith to guide our ethical decisions based in nature is primarily centered in a God-infused understanding of the world held in tension with a notion of God as wholly other and beyond human comprehension. The paradoxical nature of the assertion that God is both fully immanent, that is, present to us through the world around us, while at the same time transcendent, or separate and completely other. My claim to this understanding of the divine develops out of my Lutheran heritage that continuously asks followers of Christ to hold contrasting ideas together about divine relationships with humanity and the world. Luther’s own use of the idea of “finitium capax infiniti” or the finite bearing the infinite, amplifies this paradoxical nature. In particular, he uses this concept in discussing the nature of the Lord’s Supper, asserting that the original elements of bread and wine maintain their qualities while the divine is intermingled with them. Lutheran theologians and ethicists embrace a paradoxical way of approaching the world to guide the pursuit of self-understanding and seeking knowledge about the divine, and then ultimately, the ways in which we can employ such knowledge in our world.

Recently, the presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Elizabeth Eaton, wrote an article for Living Lutheran, the monthly magazine of the ELCA. The title of the article was “All Created Things” in which Bishop Eaton discussed the importance of maintaining our connections with the world and environments around us. She started by quoting Luther who wrote, “God’s entire divine nature is wholly and entirely in all creatures, more deeply, more inwardly, more present than the creature is to itself.” The idea that all creatures are deeply infused with the presence of the divine is something carried through Luther’s theological claims. God is the undergirding force of all life on Earth – the alpha and omega, beginning and end, an intimate part of life on Earth. Reflecting on this divine presence, Bishop Eaton cautions “…setting ourselves apart from the creation is also physically and spiritually deadly for humans…Physical alienation has spiritual consequences.”[2] The more we disconnect ourselves from the world around us, the less contact we have with the divine. The less we see the ways that our actions affect others, both human and otherkind, the less we see ourselves as a part of the divinely-infused creation. We are incomplete if we deny our relationship with the Earth because that relationship is just as essential as every other relationship we hold dear to us.

It is often difficult to remember that we are a part of the creation. We are so caught up in our daily existence of going to work or school, attending this meeting or that event, caring for our family members, paying bills, making sure we’re keeping up with current trends, or even just spending hours staring at screens all day. We lose touch with the fact that we are a part of the natural world; that our actions have consequences, that we depend on the Earth’s systems for our continued existence. We all want clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, safe and healthy foods to eat. We want these things ensured for future generations as well. But many times we do not act that way. We pretend that our individual behaviors are not contributing to environmental degradation. We choose convenience over sustainability. We want to protect other species of animals, like polar bears floating on untethered glaciers, but not if it’s going to create more work for us. Or we simply don’t know how to respond – it’s easier to push images of deadly wildfires, droughts, or flooding off into the corners of our minds if we are not directly impacted by them. We can’t see climate change as it happens. It’s hard to be fully conscious of long-term changes in sea levels and loss of biodiversity when we have so much else to be concerned about in our immediate future. We may love the beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the calm of sitting next to the Charles River or the top of a mountain, but we find it hard to keep the divine nature infused in each and every bit of the world around us in mind on a daily basis.

For many of us today, just connecting with our human neighbors seems difficult let alone connecting with the rest of creation. We have found new and inventive ways of separating ourselves from one another – not only by physical location or physical barriers, but also through mindsets that automatically close us off from hearing information that could lead to greater understanding and appreciation of our neighbors. If all creatures are filled with the divine presence that is more intimate to them than they could ever know themselves, then all humans also possess this same quality. We encounter difficulties in seeing others as bearers of divine presence repeatedly through racism, xenophobia, and bigotry – the most recent example of which just took place yesterday at Chabad Synagogue of Poway on the final day of Passover and six months after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Or we can recall the attacks on Catholic churches in Sri Lanka last Sunday during Easter services…or the devastating mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand last month. We continue to face the racism and xenophobia of those seeking asylum in the US, with thousands of children still separated from their families in detention centers around the country. Issues like these will continue to increase as climate change leads to massive migrations of people who will be climate refugees – unable to live in their current home countries because of drought, flooding, famine, or other conditions that will make life unbearable. Our world is in crisis in more ways than one and we must find new ways to respond.

The other day, a friend of mine posted about Fred Rogers. You might be familiar with Mr. Rogers from his PBS show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Many of us grew up with him welcoming us into his home as one of his neighbors, taking us on adventures to learn how crayons are made or explaining that it’s okay to feel our emotions, and how to use our imaginations to take a small yellow and red trolley to a Neighborhood of Make Believe with a King and Queen, talking tigers, owls, and cats. Mr. Rogers was also a Presbyterian minister. While his show wasn’t overly religious, it exuded the central principles of Christianity in secular ways. Mr. Rogers was all about instilling messages of love and kindness in children while also helping them navigate the world around them. The quote that my friend posted an excerpt of what Mr. Rogers said he would want his last broadcasted message to be. He stated:

Well, I would want [those] who were listening somehow to know that they had unique value, that there isn’t anybody in the whole world exactly like them and that there never has been and there never will be. And that they are loved by the Person who created them, in a unique way. If they could know that and really know it and have that behind their eyes on their neighbor and realize, ‘My neighbor has unique value too; there’s never been anybody in the whole world like my neighbor, and that there never will be.’ If they could value that person – if they could love that person – in ways that we know the Eternal loves us, then I would be grateful.[3]

Mr. Rogers reminds us that we should value the uniqueness of each individual, including ourselves, because of our connections to the divine. While he may not use the language of divine presence, his words point to an divine presence that makes each person unique and valuable. Recognition of the unique value of other people is obviously needed in our world today. We can also expand Mr. Rogers’ valuation of human uniqueness to our non-human neighbors as well.

What we need and desire is connection. Our relationships are the things that bind us together as a community. Our selves, our communities, our Earth are built upon the divine presence that undergirds us all. As many of you sitting in the congregation know, I completed my dissertation this year in ecological ethics. Obviously, I couldn’t let an opportunity like this go by without sharing a quote from it with you that I think is particularly apt to the message of locating divine presence in all things:

To stand in the sight of the Earth requires us to acknowledge we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves that is a complex web of interactions. Observing the self as a part of this complex web, with the potential to create and destroy on small and grand scales, brings into question what the human role should be in light of the world. If we are truly a part of God’s creation – not just stewards, but intimately connected with the Earth through our very being – then we must acknowledge that our relationship with the Earth requires the same sort of consideration our other close relationships ask of us. To care. To love. To protect. To seek justice.[4]

We have the capacity for the care and ingenuity needed to address the daunting global environmental problems that we and others will face. We may not have Christ standing before us to prove divine presence in the world, but we do have each other AND the world which can remind us of God’s grace and love. If we are able to recognize the Divine presence in each being – human or not – then we can begin to take responsibility for one another. In our local contexts, whether it is our neighborhood, town, or ecosystem, we have the tools already present to us that can help us develop new ways of being in the world. We can expand our care for one another out of the love that Christ showed to us by recognizing the divine nature infused in each and every thing around us. We can respect the uniqueness of each person, each plant, each animal and what it offers to our Earth community that keeps us bound together in an interconnected web of creation.

Amen.

– Dr. Jessica Chicka, University Chaplain for International Students

[1] Adil Najam, “Age of Adaptation,” Presentation at Boston Symposium on Ecologically Informed Theological Education, April 5, 2019.

[2] Elizabeth Eaton, “All Created Things,” Living Lutheran, March 29, 2019, Accessed April 1, 2019: https://www.livinglutheran.org/2019/03/all-created-things/.

[3] Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 161.

[4] Jessica Ann Hittinger Chicka, God, Self Humanity Earth: Christian Ecological Ethics in Local Contexts, PhD Dissertation, Boston University, 2019, 271.